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The heartbreak of staggering self-consciousness

Today I came across a copy of Dave Eggers' Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and was reminded of myself in my twenties, when I was that same kind of hyper-self-conscious, neurotic product of postmodern society (albeit proudly disgusted with postmodernism and enamored of the Enlightenment and the 19th century). I read the book then and journal-jotted some thoughts, seeing myself essentially as a less-talented version of the author (psychologically speaking—the same inner turmoil, yearning for objective validation, reality—for everything was illusion, self-consciousness, an act put on for oneself and others). The movie Birdman dramatizes the condition, the modern/postmodern lack of self-reality, from Montaigne and then Don Quixote to Diderot's Rameau's Nephew, through Kierkegaard to Dostoyevsky (Notes from Underground) and existentialism, up to David Foster Wallace and beyond, with countless twisted byways and highways along the way. Oh cursed self-consciousness, destroyer of all that is real! (Read R. D. Laing, for instance—The Divided Self.)

As a blogger, I'm permitted to be self-indulgent, so here are some snippets of my too-conscious youth—random descriptions and observations reflecting a culture saturated in irony...


February, 2010. Reading A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius for a book club with a bunch of “hot chicks,” in the street argot. After a hundred pages and a little skipping around, one of my impressions is that this dude doesn’t achieve the connoisseurship of suffering that I knew for too many years, although he thinks he does (or did) and prides himself on it (while mocking his pride, while mocking his mocking, while proud of his self-mocking self-mocking). Tragedy, yes; drama, no doubt; but extended, distended, intended, subtended pain tending toward suicide year after year after year, no. Parents dead within five weeks when he’s 21—tragic, dramatic, the stuff of memoirs; but two older siblings and a girlfriend he sort of loves and close friends and a younger brother to whom he’s passionately devoted and off to San Francisco (San Francisco!), and a fair amount of sex and dating. None of the cavernous loneliness of mine for far too long, or the burning sexual frustration. (Maddening, the unconsummated love of women.) This insidious undramatic suffering—in my case, shy self-consciousness with all its offshoots—is the worst kind. My having emerged cheerful as ever on the other side is—impressive.

On the other hand, Eggers did grow up with an alcoholic father. There’s that too.

....The desire to meet a good woman is the motivation behind most of my socializing. (“A good woman is a hidden treasure: the finder is well advised not to boast about it.”) The book clubs. The activists’ homelessness campaign, which I agreed to join the leadership committee of because it’s a connection to good people. The MIT conference tonight and tomorrow on “Building an Ethical Economy” (utopian), subtitled “Theology and the Marketplace”—tonight a lecture by some Cambridge economist well-versed in the art of talking without saying anything. Grand words and sentences spoken with gravitas about why natural resources are underpriced in the market and so forth, and then the panel with a bishop, a theologian from UChicago, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and some other guy, followed by questions from the audience, and the same puffed-up lexical legerdemain with the big words and long sentences spoken in paragraphs that leave you wondering at the end “What was just said?” And if you figure it out, the next thought is “I could have said all that in two sentences.” (And when it comes to intellectuals, the customer is indeed always right.) Afterwards the splitting into small groups to pore over the copious…doodles we had made. In the vacuum of intelligence that was my group, I emerged as the de facto leader, trying to steer the discussion towards something, anything, concrete. These conferences, like most meetings of whatever sort, tend to be masturbatory—although really it’s an insult to masturbation to call them masturbatory. But I met some girls and will go back tomorrow to meet others.

Second day: again with the verbal virtuosity but relative emptiness of thought, excessive abstractness. The focus of the conference is theory, not practice—and not even productive theory, but moralizing. Ways of moralizing about the economy and economics. You know, it’s thinned-out theology, watered down into pseudo-humanism. Zippadeedoo, let’s all go celebrate how good we feel now. But I liked most of the young people I met. Had a heated little debate during our “group discussion” with an elderly douchebag of a management consultant blindly loyal to capitalism; trounced him, of course. It’s diverting to school a businessman in the ways of the world, watching him get twisted in the coils of his illogic. These diluted humanist-religious people were allergic to what limited tension there was and tried to defuse it.

….Reading this “heartbreaking” book by an unconscious literary semi-Hegelian obsessed with self-obsession and fame and self-confirmation or the (imaginary) real-izing of one’s self, the voice of a culture that has no higher goal than to overcome anonymity through whatever means necessary (The Real World or starting an ill-fated literary magazine or whatever)[1] because that’s how you validate your existence even though it’s quixotic for nearly everyone (and in a deeper sense, for everyone), brings home to me how ingenious is my own solution to the problem. You know what it is. The not caring about present fame, the being born posthumously. It’s an illusion perfectly symmetrical to the illusion of imprinting oneself immortally on the world, which is what is sought by the author and his culture in the present, self-defeatingly (because the present is gone the next moment, but for other reasons too). My illusion is perfectly calibrated to achieve my goal, in fact makes its lack of achievement impossible—because if posthumously I’m not celebrated it won’t matter, since I’ll be dead. So I go through life not being disturbed by my anonymity (at least on one level). Millions of others not so intensely aware of Absurdity as I are suicidal, suicides, while I “do my thing” quietly and patiently, guided by faith. In myself. Or so I tell myself.


Twenty-nine years old.— Nothing impresses me anymore, least of all the fact that nothing impresses me anymore—so there’s nothing to do but sit back and enjoy this good-humored life-weariness and listen to the song “Beast of Burden,” with a cold beer in my hand.


Useless book club. Few people showed up, and only the stupid ones. Funny how two people can read a book and have totally opposite impressions—one person understanding it and the other completely missing the point. :-) Idiots moralizing about Eggers, his “selfishness,” need for attention, manipulation of relationships for the sake of art. (Poor John, poor Beth, poor everyone being exploited by Eggers for his novel. So inconsiderate! So immoral! And oh his pathetic need to be in the spotlight!) Jesus God what morons. Personalizing it all. What the fuck is wrong with people. As usual, I played the philosopher to everyone else’s–Tartuffe. The sympathizer with genius vs. the enforcers of convention. Seriously, what occurs in the mind of the average person? Condemning Eggers for “telling me how to interpret the book,” and for being self-obsessed—as if that isn’t the whole point. I went out of my way to antagonize these fools. “I loved the book, and as for his being self-obsessed, I have to agree with him that in general it’s hard to be intelligent or interesting without being self-obsessed on some level. Anyway, it’s the culture, not him. It’s a narcissistic culture; that’s his point. He recognizes the absurdities of his own stance, even the perhaps morally ambiguous implications, but you can’t avoid his self-absorption nowadays if you’re intelligent. [That sounded mean, so:] It’s the environment.” Stony stares, glares. And then the harsh moral criticisms for explicitly exploiting his relationships with friends. So I: “All artists exploit their relationships, their experience, especially all literary artists. At least he has the honesty to admit it, and to struggle with it. And that’s the whole point, that self-consciousness. Besides, the only alternative is to not write at all. It’s supposed to be a memoir, portraying the inhumanity of modern America, the using each other for our own purposes, and the self-doubts, the moral doubts, that go along with that. He’s full of angst, you know, and what more do you want?” Vacant stares, so I stop. Then my praising the scene near the end in the church thinking about his mother’s death and the world’s ingratitude for her sacrifices, my saying that was one of the best parts because it was totally authentic and not “corrupted” by self-consciousness, and somebody observing that in fact he thought Eggers was worrying in that scene about his own death, about people potentially not acknowledging his future achievements, and it required discipline for me not to say “That’s fucking stupid.” So I said, “No way. The point of that scene was to rise above any self-awareness or self-doubt, to just pour out his anguish, his genuine anger at the world for its treatment of his mother and for the absurdity of her death totally unsymmetrical with the value of her life—that’s why the angels carried her up and the dome came off the church and the golden light. There was no self-referring. It would have corrupted it, like [earlier] when he was throwing her ashes into the water and wondering about his motives, about how he would look to an outsider and so on, which ruined the moment for him.” But you can’t change people’s minds, so the other guy concluded that we simply had a disagreement. “Yeah, but I’m right and you’re wrong,” I wanted to say, as I’d said to the douchebag businessman at the other thing. (To be more exact, he had said that a certain group of people I was criticizing—mainstream media executives, etc.—would “make the same criticisms of you,” so I retorted, “Sure, but they’re wrong and I’m right,” which is the only sensible retort, aside from “So what? People are idiots.”)


The writer.— For whom do I write? Not really for myself, since I want an audience. But not really for other people either, since I don’t have in mind anyone in particular when I’m writing, and knowing that my works are read doesn’t give me much pleasure. Besides, I don’t have a high enough opinion of most people for their approval to mean a lot. What I’m writing for, then, is something abstract, not concrete. I have in mind, obscurely, an “abstract” audience. Most immediately, the abstraction in question has to be the abstract other(ness) in my consciousness, the “other” in the “self-other” structure that defines human consciousness. My mind is permeated by otherness—I’m aware of myself as an other to myself—and it’s this that drives me to create. Getting recognition from concrete people is slightly satisfying because it entails some small recognition from the other in my mind, and so from myself. Ultimately, then, it’s myself—but in a mediated way—to whom I want to prove my worth, or the supposed “objective justifiability” of my self-respect.

But since the otherness that accompanies me (and makes possible human self-consciousness) is abstract, it really can only correspond to another abstract entity. Thus I’m led to imagine things like God or humanity or posterity, universal things “out there” whose recognition or appreciation of me would truly confirm my value. Recognition from them would be as “objectively real” as it can get, and so would basically satisfy me. I create for these things, and I pretend they exist and aren’t just figments of my imagination. Since they don’t exist, I’ll never be satisfied, never certain of my objective worth (the notion of which, in any case, is meaningless). Still, I have to keep striving, impressing myself on the world, imagining that I’m writing for posterity and all humanity, imagining that I’ll be immortal…—while laughing at the desire, and laughing at the laughter.


November, 2005.— I’m taking advantage of my neutral mood to examine my psychology of the last few days. Purely out of intellectual curiosity.

Beginning around November 8th, the various drugs I was taking [experimentally] stopped having nice effects. Instead, they left me with an ugly nervous feeling in my chest and frequent twitching in my limbs. So I stopped taking them. This was the same time I began to see that most of the people I’d thought were my friends were really no more than close acquaintances, excepting Sandy. I found myself spending more time alone. I started thinking. (That was my downfall.) Philosophically, I’d been trying for a few weeks to wrap my mind around the possibility that solipsism is false. Solipsism is ridiculous, of course, but so is the opposite position. They’re both equally ridiculous. The idea that other people are outside me, looking at me, hearing my words but not experiencing my mind, makes no sense. I am all that existence is: this ‘looking out’ at other people is the only existence. How can there be two existences, two worlds, looking at each other? How can there be other consciousnesses exactly like mine, as immediate for them as mine is for me, judging me, having the thoughts about me that I’m having about them? In other words, where are they? They don’t exist in the world I live in; therefore, they don’t exist. Naturally I associated this abstract problem with the other intense aspect of my life: my social life. For the first time ever I really made an effort to see myself from the other’s perspective: I looked in the mirror for stretches of time, trying to imagine myself outside of myself so I could decide what I’d think of this person; I imagined social situations from the other’s perspective rather than mine; etc. One night as I was falling asleep—I was in that long ambiguous state between life and death—I thought about high school and college, about how I must have seemed to my classmates. My mind rehearsed all the embarrassing things I’d done. I thought about the transience of my relationships; but mostly I came to realize, more completely than ever before, that in my daily interactions I must come off as rather boring, and that if my peers saw me sitting in the corner of this furnitureless room every night writing about philosophy or myself and generally looking pathetic they’d consider me pretty contemptible, and so for the first time it hit me with real force that I in fact am contemptible. I’d never seriously considered this possibility; I’d mostly just been angry at myself and others. But now I saw a future desolate of relationships, desolate of a profession I could hold down, desolate of happiness, and a death when I’d survey the past and see a life lived only in a journal, a life crowded out by a journal, and I considered how contemptible these thoughts were too, and that I couldn’t justify myself by invoking my creativity or whatnot and echoing the mantra “Artists are always depressed” because, first, I’m not an artist, and second, creativity is an accidental fact, which if I lacked would mean I’m nothing but a sad little self-preoccupied man, and I thought about how little progress I’d made after all from my college years to now and how the falsity of solipsism means I’m merely a face among billions with nothing special about it and probably a good many things wrong with it and how I was 25 and my life had passed in a flash and when I died I would see that my life had passed in a flash and I’d return to the horror of the absence of horror and that I no longer cared a jot about being a “great man” because that too was contemptible and moreover false and I started to fall into confusion and suspension-of-the-will because I kept looking at myself from outside and felt like I was splitting apart into a part that smiled its way through the day and a part that judged this part from every angle and every person and although I kept screaming at it “Every judgment results from ignorance and no judgment is valid and knowledge is compassion!” I couldn’t suppress the nagging doubt that this wasn’t quite right and besides it didn’t matter because people would keep judging me no matter how ignorant I knew they were and so when the car almost hit me I thought “Maybe that wouldn’t have been a tragedy after all” and I kind of overflowed and would have come loose if my self-consciousness hadn’t held me back.

That’s sort of how I felt.


I think the lingering influence of the drugs-experimentation was the basic cause of the agony of the past week. I took the various drugs again this morning and now in the evening I can feel the encroaching tentacles of paranoia. An uninhibitedness of wild thoughts, contemplation of my place in the universe, looking outside looking in to see a person grappling with sanity, spasmodic outbursts that would terrify a spectator. He would say “Get thee to an asylum!” Desperation to be with a human. Disbelief—awe—that there are normal people out there whose presence would restore me. Bring me back to the mundane, which I love.

I can’t be labeled! I will not be labeled! Nor will I let you look at me, because that too is falsehood. And so you say I’m false, I’m being false, choosing words with care to impress upon you my being world-history by being crazy and intense and what have you? You say I want to appear tortured and egomaniacal because I know how cool that is, and so I craft this false persona to compete with, say, Van Gogh? “Oh,” you say, “this guy Chris had an ego ruptured in so many places so he tried to repair it by competing with names. But he knew he was competing and cultivated this illusion so he was a charlatan. But he knew he was a charlatan and he knew that others would call him a charlatan so he fought against it by refining his charlatanry by showing he was aware of it and admitting it and hoping that would convince them that he wasn’t. But then he knew this was only higher-level charlatanry (because he knew he was a normal guy) and so he took it one step further to deflect the contempt and said he was aware that he was aware that he was a charlatan. And so on.” How little you know! You’ve barely scratched the surface. This bouncing back and forth between perspectives (the inner and the outer) creates a new reality every ten seconds, for the contradiction between them is unsalv(e)able, such that there is no reality. There is only a reading these words and thinking “That dude was disturbed, man” and a writing these words thinking “Am I being fake? But then this need to be fake is real—or is it faked too? But then the need to be fake to seem fake is real—or maybe not....—but eventually one of them has to be real. But how can it? I am not ‘real’; I transcend the real and look down at it so that I’m fake, because if you’re fake you can manipulate and be in control. But, honestly, I’d love to be real, I’d love to know myself and then take a break in the backyard of love, a love that would ground me.” But the problem is that I have a face. It’s the face that begs the question. What’s the relation between this ‘sticky’ face and ‘slippery’ me? And what is the reality behind these words? How must they be judged? –Because they must indeed be judged, by me and you. They say something about me, though I don’t know what.


[2005.] My whole life has been a question mark. I haven’t the faintest idea what or who the fuck I am, or where I’m going or why I’m here. What a fucking absurd farce!

(I’m no one, of course. I’m just a state of consciousness in the specious present, though memories etc. make me think I’m a “self” by cramming all sorts of baggage into this state of consciousness. –That’s the solution to it all, by the way, that being nothing but a fleeting state of consciousness. We have to get away from thinking of ourselves as static entities of some sort, spiritual substances possessing identities, selves denoted by names, and instead—not think of ourselves at all. Just throw ourselves into activities, like animals. Reflectiveness is bad. We have to forget we have minds, lose the very concept of consciousness. Then there will be no more identity-crises, no more alienation. The less we think of ourselves as selves (as ‘identities-in-motionactive concepts’), the less we’ll be aware of consciousness as distinguished from body and ourselves as distinguished from the world, and the less self-divided (and community-divided) we’ll be. Self-division is basically division between immediacy—immediate, active consciousness—and the reified concept(ion) of ourselves, the half-conceptualized self-accretions of the past. There’s an irremediable conflict there. In fact, I think that’s the essential conflict in self-consciousness, that conflict between the active and the passive, or consciousness and the self-concept (the “ego”-concept). Yes, the conflict isn’t between consciousness and itself but between consciousness and the ‘identity-concept,’ or the ego-concept, it has formed of itself over the years. The reason the self can never be one with itself [see Kierkegaard, Sartre, and all the existentialists] is that it is both an activity and a passive (self-)conceptualization, as I've written elsewhere. We have to get rid of names, as well as dualisms in general, so that we can be pure immediacy only vaguely conscious of itself.)[2]


[2012.] I’m reading stuff on transnational labor history and activism, but I need frequent breaks. Most of it is somewhat tedious. Labor history in general, at least as usually done, doesn’t seem to present many opportunities for imagination and creativity. I have the soul of a poet, philosopher, and psychologist, but I want to understand society and I long for human liberation, so I read things that otherwise might not interest me. Only when I turn, say, to Georg Lukács’s reflections on Dostoyevsky in Marxism and Human Liberation: Essays on History, Culture, and Revolution do I feel really at home. I’m reminded of why Dostoyevsky struck me like a revelation—especially in Notes from the Underground—years ago. Like when Stavrogin, the hero of The Possessed, writes in a letter

I tried my strength everywhere. You advised me to do this so as to learn “to know myself.”.... But what to apply my strength to – that’s what I have never seen and don’t see now.... I can still wish to do something good, as I always could, and that gives me a feeling of pleasure. At the same time I wish to do something evil and that gives me pleasure, too.... My desires are not strong enough, they cannot guide me. You can cross a river on a log but not on a chip of wood.

That’s still sort of my problem, as it is the problem of millions of people everywhere. The solitude of life in the modern world... “By this solitude, by this immersion of the subject in itself, the self becomes bottomless. There arises either the anarchy of Stavrogin, a loss of direction in all instincts, or the obsession of a Raskolnikov by an ‘idea.’” I’ve experienced both, but a shallow version of the former is much more common. Aimlessness. It was already a widespread social disease in the second half of the nineteenth century, but in the twentieth century it reached epidemic proportions. Hence the existentialists and then the psychoanalyst R. D. Laing and such theorists, who see people unconsciously obsessed with testing the reality of their existence. (A deficit of communal life = a deficit of self-confirmation = a deficit of the sense of self.) I don’t see any prospect that this characteristic malady of modernity will be overcome within the next century.


[As a kind of coda, here's an old "poem" I kind of like that rages at critics, or rather the critical voices in my head, the torment of never being satisfied with anything one does.]

The critical burden

fuck the critical faculty

fuck having to write prettily

fuck not writing shittily

fuck the critics’ fiddling,

their fucking piddling “poem”-peddling—

middling little shits scribbling, meddling,

belittling your word-whittling—but it’s soul-settling, that’s all!—

soul-bettering, pain-tempering—

little literary rules are irrelevant, it’s self-expression;

you’re like Hessian mercenaries you fucks but less,

scribbling critical dribble for a paycheck.


[1] Irony: validating yourself, making yourself “real,” by means of reality shows that are in fact less real than anything else in the world (although they are also more real insofar as they’re at the center of culture, i.e. the public reality). And the public recognition that comes from them, or from any media-centered activity, is similarly unreal, meaningless. The only “real” things in life (i.e., the things that make you real) are your family, your friends, your lover, and so on, although these are also (perceived as) unreal in that they’re not the center of the public world, which is seen as the only real world—though it is in fact, as I just said, the fakest.

[2] [Needless to say, all that is impossible (and written somewhat ironically). We can't escape the essence of human consciousness.]


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