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Eat My Shorts 4 / Malice, Models, Malingering, Malick
Standing up to bullies in order to bully; contra Hanania on "great books"; my one weird trick; wasted words on "Knight of Cups" and "Tree of Life"
Excuses for Malice
In the late 1990s, I worked at a veterinary hospital in New Orleans. Then and there, the professionalization of veterinary technicians hadn’t occurred yet; most of us were washed-up or fucked-up losers: parolees, addicts, the merely lost, and most hopelessly, Tulane students. We liked one another, mostly, and became friends on smoke breaks or while euthanizing the Nth beloved family pet of the day or taking delivery of an injured animal from the children who had tortured it and, suddenly realizing “what happens,” were crying so hard they couldn’t breathe. I made $6.16 an hour and it was all right.
One day, one of the receptionists came into the back of the hospital, sobbing; she said her ex-boyfriend was outside, had showed up to harass her over something, and wouldn’t leave; she said he’d never been physically violent but “I think he could be,” and when I went out front to check out the situation I could hear him screaming: “Get out here! Get the fuck out here you fucking bitch!”
My blood was up nearly instantly, and I felt a familiar set of sensations: the “rising” metabolism, the feeling of pitching forward as one’s posture arranges itself for combat, the surging, transporting ecstasy of violence gathering. I ran outside and starting screaming at him: “Hey! Hey! Get the fuck out of here! Get the fuck out of here, you fucking piece of shit!” And so on. We did what many men do in conflict: kept our distance while loudly announcing that we didn’t intend to keep our distance. I insulted him and threatened him, and he reciprocated. Finally, he got into his car and peeled out. I went back inside feeling high. I felt like laughing, but didn’t; I checked on my colleague and others, and then we all got back to work.
Later that week, I was excited to tell my psychiatrist of my good deed; I assumed she’d be, as I was, pleased with me for protecting someone, for standing up to a bully, and so on. But she was not pleased; she was as disappointed in me as I ever remember her being, mostly for what she took as a dramatic failure of introspective integrity. Because to her, my interpretation of this incident was utterly delusional.
“If you’d wanted to protect your colleague, you’d have stayed with her while you or someone else called the police; maybe you’d have snuck her out the back to take her somewhere safer. None of this was about protection, nor was it about standing up to a bully. This was about you getting to be a bully. You use the moments to disgorge your violence, maybe even some sadism, while telling yourself that you’re being moral. But it wasn’t moral; it was egoistic and stupid, and the fact that you couldn’t tell that you enjoy these moments is concerning. You’re not a put-upon reluctant hero; you’re someone who loves to be mean who sometimes finds excuses for it. You have no idea what that man was going through, either, but you can be assured you didn’t make it better, or help their situation with this. And you could’ve been beaten, or killed, or gotten someone else killed, or accidentally killed someone. None of this is good. I thought you understood yourself better than this.”
I was stunned, not least because it was immediately obvious that she was right. I realized in an instant that nearly every time I’d been aggressive or violent, I’d done so with just-so moralism behind it: I always told myself I was “standing up to” or “standing up for” something, and I’d believed it. But everything I’d stood up for or against in my life had come and gone; what stayed the case was that I got high off being mean; I had a sick relationship with power; I had malice in my heart, and I thrilled at the guiltless expression of it (although guilt often followed later when the moral mania faded).
I think of this little story daily working on the Internet. The platforms I’ve worked on are, among many other things, highly efficient markets for acquiring the pretexts we need to feel and act the ways we evidently want to; to some extent, they’re vigilantism clearing houses. In moments of online conflict, I’ve experienced the exact same rising metabolism, the same quickening that tells the conscious mind “we’ve been triggered by an injustice and must act!” while somewhere in the subconscious a little reptilian demon rubs its hands together gleefully. What do you know? The moment calls for anger, and by coincidence, I happen to be overflowing with it; what a fortunate alignment of nature and circumstance!
Hanania’s One Weird Trick
Perhaps everyone really does have one weird trick. The one weird trick of conservative writermay be being profoundly anti-mimetic, to use a phrase I associate with . When my friend asked me about Hanania’s post called “The Case Against (Most) Books,” I was at first surprised: the meme that “books aren’t sufficiently worthwhile” is relatively hoary in the rationalist scene, if still provocative elsewhere, and I wouldn’t have expected him to find it interesting. But most of his criticisms (of most books) are correct: too many are padded, redundant, obviously composed without much concern for the reader’s time or benefit. Of course, most things produced in volume are bad.
But when Hanania gets into why “great books” are a waste, I think his one weird trick trips him up:
One might read old books for historical interest…, but the idea that someone writing more than say four hundred years ago could have deep insights into modern issues strikes me as farcical. If old thinkers do have insights, the same points have likely been made more recently and better by others who have had the advantage of coming after them.
Elsewhere, he says
Given all the other things you could be reading like scientific papers and news magazines, not to mention other things you could be doing with your time, which non-fiction books are worth reading cover-to-cover?
Hanania is, these paragraphs imply, on the hunt for discrete insights, or knowledge, and he notes that can get these as effectively from “scientific papers and news magazines” as he can from non-fiction books. Each insight is, he suggests, basically fungible: if you can learn concept U from reading Nietzsche, you can just as easily learn concept U from reading an excellent summary of Nietzsche, or maybe even from an unrelated blog post that covers the same territory.
Perhaps this is, in fact, so, but I don’t think this is how all humans experience reading or knowledge, and in particular knowledge of the liberal arts varieties most likely to be the focus of “great books.” Rather: we mimetically interiorize the author, building a model of them from the text as though it were training data, so that we can later apply that model to what we encounter in life or learning.
The purpose of reading Nietzsche, to stick with our example, is only partly to learn concept U (say, his idea of the Übermensch). It is also to learn how Nietzsche thought, how he wrote, how he operated as a thinker and writer; it is to learn a way of seeing or being which one might model or even imitate (or react against). That is: the purpose is mimetic. And it requires the original author, whom we wish to mimetically interiorize based in part on their unique status and role in the development of a field, or a society, or a school of thought, or a historical moment.
Hanania is conservative enough that I’m surprised he didn’t consider the Chesterton’s fence possibility: that large numbers of people read non-fiction books not because of error, confusion, or bad estimation of opportunity costs, but because such books provide something valuable to them which they rationally assess and want more of. But I think the “something” in question —mimetic interiorization of a distinct and celebrated point of view— is probably not something he himself experiences much, which is his strength in many cases and perhaps a blind spot here.
At one point he says:
But I’m 100% certain that if you gathered some passages from Marcus Aurelius and hired a halfway intelligent blogger to produce content made to sound like Marcus Aurelius, nobody would be able to tell the difference.
Many cover-bands achieve near-perfect fidelity to the original, yet somehow they rarely eat into the latter’s tour or album sales. Mechanical reproduction didn’t reduce the importance of aura because context matters to humans. Rationalists tend to assume that this is due to mistakes in reasoning or pathetic preoccupations with status and signaling, but it’s also possible that there is either in theory or in fact information and knowledge embedded in such context that’s valuable to others.
Perhaps someone could hire a halfway intelligent blogger to produce content made to sound like Richard Hanania, after all. Would anyone want to read it? Hanania himself has written many thousands of words. Would a short summary be sufficient to cover what his readers love about him? Given that the answer to both of those questions seems likely to be “no,” I feel that there’s something missing from Hanania’s understanding of why we read, even non-fiction. We are not only collecting data; we are exposing ourselves to novel models and types, heroes and avatars, forms and ways of being.
At the very least: I personally do not regret having a roster of (possibly badly-) simulated authors sitting on my shoulders as I look out at the world, and I wouldn’t trade the richness of my model of e.g. Iris Murdoch for a more efficient experience “learning what she had to say” in Existentialists and Mystics.
(I do not mean any of this to be critical of Hanania’s main thrust, incidentally; I am just interested in how our weird tricks work).
My Weird Trick
My weird trick is that in response to something being bad, I can often
plausibly / persuasively reinterpret it as “good, actually” (or at least “fine”); and/or
recompose myself / suppress myself / become whatever I need to be for it to be “good, actually” (or at least “fine”) for real (mostly).
In the contemporary theories of psychology, this would be understood to be a response to a (rather common) kind of unstable or challenging childhood. In any event, much of my personality and both inner- and outer-lives reflect these capacities. To take one example: I am insensate, because having no sense of my own body allows me to e.g. never need food or drink, never require one kind of food over another, never be too tired (or too antsy) for my circumstances, etc. I am socially flexible because I am physically dead to myself. This seems entirely dope to me, incidentally, but people tell me it’s bad.
In any event, my weird trick has limits. I was lamenting a mild cold and my outrageously pathetic emotional reaction to it to friend and fellow publication tycoon, and he mentioned that it’s not surprising that I do poorly with illness given that I cannot interpret it away: there’s no “alternative view” at the intellectual level that makes any difference to e.g. how a fever feels, and I’m basically unused to having to deal with problems I cannot deny, so I crack up a bit. If there is a limit to the law of infinite cornucopia, direct and immediate physical suffering may be it (which is one reason why suffering is such a central part of most religious systems of thought: only transcendental reinterpretations can seem relevant, if even they can).
More seriously, my trick makes me unsympathetic to a wide range of problems people have. In the past decade, I’ve become terrified of flying, and it’s provided a useful lens —here’s another happy reinterpretation, incidentally— into how lots of people feel with other fears, or just with general anxiety. As my teeth chatter and my palms sweat on totally smooth and routine flights, I think: “This is what it’s like for Abby when she’s having a panic attack,” or “this is how people who don’t like to speak in public feel,” and there’s not much for it when you’re in the thick of the fear. It’s so physical! It’s so totalizing! The way fear expands, too: horizontally, earlier and earlier before the trigger, and vertically, into fear of fear, and even fear of fear of fear.
Presumably, all our weird tricks meet their match in some circumstances. I assume this is partly why many feel e.g. that “you don’t know someone until you’ve seen them at their worst”; because after the weird tricks comes the unalterable substrate of the self, the raw and uncontrolled atavism within, and not only do we not normally know this side of others, we often don’t know this side of ourselves. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s who we “really” are —we’re all of it, we’re none of it— but if we’re unlucky in life, it’s a side of us that will emerge, often with shocking results. “I guess we never really knew him,” people sometimes say, and they’re right.
A Mess re: Malick
I’m a very foolish person, but even I have had the sense not to attempt to write about Terrence Malick’s films. His work reminds me of one of Milan Kundera’s many dictums:
The novel’s sole raison d’être is to say what only the novel can say.
Such a novel will not benefit much from criticism or interpretation, as it “says what only the novel can say”; that is, what it says cannot be said in another form, or at least not as well.Likewise, Malick’s films “say what only film can say,” and writing about them feels utterly absurd; what is light and striking in Malick is ponderous and obvious in prose, calling to mind Tom Stoppard’s observation about his own work:
“If I were to write an essay instead of a play about any of these subjects it wouldn’t be profound.”
Likewise, essays about Malick strain to recapitulate what’s profound about Malick’s films. In a moment of frustration, I realized that I was engaged in a totally quixotic enterprise:
But I also cannot stop thinking about Malick’s broadly-panned Knight of Cups, which I loved and feel driven to watch over and over. Perhaps fittingly, I cannot seem to fashion a structured set of thoughts about it. I think it not only says what only film can say, but says about human experience what only human experience, as catalyzed by film, can say.
One thing I thought about a lot watching it was perception. When we think about how we perceive or experience the world, we often imagine a process like:
external data → sense organ → mind
But this isn’t quite right. Mind —broadly defined— is present before and during every step:
external data filtered and colored by mind → sense organ co-inventing with mind → mind (and mind interpreting mind)
The role mind —and thus beliefs, values, moods, personality, etc.— plays in perception and experience is so powerful that it regularly overwhelms other factors. Even in the world of science, it’s simply never the case that data speaks for itself. The physicist David Deutsch describes this as “all observation [being] theory-laden.” The reason why induction —the derivation of a general rule from observation alone— is invalid and indeed literally impossible is that when we imagine concluding that the sun will rise tomorrow because it rose today, we’re falsifying the truth of our thinking. Before we can conclude that the sun will rise tomorrow because it rose today, we must have a theory that things that occur tend to keep occurring, or that patterns occur in natural processes, or whatever else would lead us to conclude anything from the mere data of sunrises.There is no such thing as “raw” or “pure” observation; theory, conjecture, interpretation all precede it. The mind comes first. It is the upstream structure which governs what we do with everything we encounter.
This is not simply important for science. In our lives, we often attempt to resolve our problems by changing the “external data” of experience, only to discover that wherever we go, there we are: whatever the terrain, the photons it scatters back at us come through the same eyes, to the same mind, which tires of what it once cherished, flees from what it must face, cares for nothing so much as itself until all it has is itself; at which point it saturates with self-sickness and longing.
We are restless. We have different experiences, of course, and we also have different minds: beliefs, values, moods, personalities, etc. But in many ways we live the same lives: marooned on the same planet with the same general drives and fears, suffering both from what’s changing and what’s not, unable to find peace for long, able to and indeed liable to turn peace into hell for ourselves, if needs be, to express that restlessness. (We will seek a new, better peace).
The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard touches on this restlessness when he claims that for those who cannot or do not believe in something transcendent, the highest possible mode of life is merely “aesthetic,” and requires an often-painful “rotation and repetition” of interests over time. What we do drains of meaning; sophisticated hedonists, like experienced drug users, know how to ride the waves and stay one step ahead of the crashes, but, Kierkegaard believed, they’re in a losing contest. This world really is empty without —well, Kierkegaard had his answer, and hopefully you have yours. Presumably, it colors everything you see.
What does the world look like through different eyes? How similar, and how different, are we? How much do beliefs shape us? How much does “external data” matter? In what moments of experience can we perceive mind? Where does it operate, and how? How do we become, and how do we change? These are, I think, the questions Malick is concerned with.
Improbably, I think Malick explores these questions so symmetrically in Tree of Life and Knight of Cups that they’ll always seem like companion films to me, though they’re surely not. But both concern a protagonist at the midpoint of his life, professionally successful, spiritually lost, haunted by grief from a brother’s suicide. Both protagonists also wrestle with their powerful, damaged and damaging fathers. The movies share a particular iteration of Malick’s style, and both feature scenes in which the protagonists —Sean Penn in Tree of Life and Christian Bale in Knight of Cups— wander despairingly through a rough, inhospitable and indifferent natural landscape in attire so formal that I couldn’t help but think about their slacks tearing on the rocks, their shiny shoes scuffing on sand and grit. The veneer of civilization is thin; nothing can protect you from nature, and seen against the ominous, mute, insistent presence of the world, your accoutrements are ridiculous.
But whereas Tree of Life unfolds in the mid-twentieth century against the backdrop of Christianity, and especially the Book of Job,Knight of Cups is set within a thoroughly contemporary and spiritually-denuded world. Instead of god, there is either love or pleasure, depending on how charitable one is feeling towards the protagonist, Rick. The movie follows him through a set of relationships —including one marriage— and the moments in between, these often set in his catastrophically depressing “nice” apartment (Penn in Tree of Life also has one of these places; I think the emptiness of nice places is a bit of a theme for Malick). Rick changes the “external data” often and with superficial success, in that his life is glamorous and “full of love,” these rich and complex adult loves that I sometimes doubt the continued existence of. But Rick himself seems lost or stuck, unchanged by these often quite-profound experiences, always himself. His father says to him:
Remember the story I used to tell you when you were a boy about a young prince? A knight, sent by his father, the King of the East, west into Egypt . . .
to find a pearl. A pearl from the depths of the sea. But when the prince arrived,
the people poured him a cup that took away his memory. He forgot he was the son of a the king. Forgot about the pearl . And fell into a deep sleep.
Knight of Cups is one of the better treatments I’ve seen of the ambiguity of what Walker Percy called “the search.”Is Rick-the-knight searching for the pearl in women and love affairs and even religions? Or do the disordered relationships, the drugs, and the serial immersions in scenes and beliefs themselves constitute a sleep, the sleep of the cup, the forgetting of his search? Until their conclusions, successful and unsuccessful searches look largely the same, after all. How does one know how to look for something one cannot name, may not be able to recognize, may not be able to remember? How are we to know how to live life?
One way of thinking about Tree of Life is as a story from among the first generation to grow up without god, or with god only vaguely remembered through a mother’s words and childhood services. Knight of Cups is generations into the development: there is little grace here, mostly just grasping. Inside Rick is a voracious nothing; whatever flows into Rick —even real love— turns into nothing. But although Malick is reportedly a Christian, I think there is little in these films to suggest that “belief is a solution”; on the contrary, what we see across these generations of men is that they’re all on the same path. Their differences seem cosmetic.
Rick is challenging to describe, both in the way real people are and because the film is shot, in a loose sense, both from Rick’s perspective and without Rick. While his form fills the frame when the camera follows him across landscapes and Bale is almost always on screen, Malick somewhat starkly excludes Rick from many of the presented conversations; we hear what his interlocutor said, but neither what he said nor what he felt. I wondered:
Is this a formal decision relating to some theory Malick has about “what movies should depict”? Many have noted that Malick makes a very cinematic kind of cinema, does with film what only film can do, etc.
Is this a character-sketching tactic, a way of conveying Rick’s emptiness: he is nearly non-existent? What he says doesn’t matter? He’s not there? His attention does not turn inward?
Is this a comment on how memory works? Or how Rick’s memory works? Or on something else, how we disappear in hedonism as concrete persons, how we forget almost all of life as we live it, etc.?
Watching Malick is always like this for me. For many shots, I feel I have a pleasant abundance of potential explanations for choices made in content or direction, all of which seem profound and provocative.But in any event: Rick speaks rarely, and mostly in voiceover. He seems absent, even when in intense interactions with others; we see but do not hear him in a screaming match with his father, for example.
At one point, Rick is called a “womanizer,” but this doesn’t seem exactly right, even if in a few scenes, it’s implied that he’s lustful (his gaze lingers on a woman as he walks down the street with his wife; he stares at women dancing in a club). But his relationships seem to fracture from inner difficulties, not affairs. We hear fragments of the sort of interminable conversations familiar to all struggling couples; one partner says to him: “You don’t want love. You want a love experience.” While we’re left to imagine what led her to this conclusion, she is not enraged as the betrayed are; she, and others in conversations with him, seem merely to be, after exhaustion, giving up hope on reaching him.
At another point, his ex-wife asks:
Do you remember how happy we were? We used to sing in the morning coming down the stairs. I meant to make you happy. I wanted nothing else. But then you began to be angry with me, just for little things.
By the end of their time together, we see in a flashback, she is at her limit:
Just don’t, just don’t… threaten me with leaving, okay? Just do what you want to do. Just go!
But what does Rick want to do? Other relationships encounter different issues —an affair with a married woman played by Natalie Portman ends in a miscarriage— but this is not simply the story of a womanizer, or rather, if he is womanizing, he’s not doing it correctly, for we can see that in his broken fashion, he is indeed trying to love and to be loved. But something is missing. Is it the pearl? Is it god? Is it his brother, or his father? Or is it Rick himself? Well: what’s missing from your life? What are you searching for? Are you sure you’re seeing clearly?
David and I are trying to do a podcast. It’s going pretty well, although we never do it or even really get started trying. Still: going well so far, I think.
I’ve been mentally unwell lately! It’s been a while since this happened and I’ve found it interesting, if unpleasant.
We’ve been messing around in Notes:
I can quibble with her assessment in ways. For example: it seems obvious that societies need distributed norm-enforcement in order for norms to withstand violations and abuses. For example: it’s important that when someone cuts in line, someone else protests, even if it’s irrationally risky to do so. But this kind of rationalization is decidedly irrelevant to the psychological view, which is concerned solely with the individual, and at the individual level, I think she was correct that most of the behaviors of most people have at their root psychological urges, not rational or principled positions.
It’s amusing that we say one is “roused” to anger because anger really is like arousal; maybe anger is a boner: engorged, one looks for anything to thrust into and get off on. Sometimes this even feels like love, but it’s usually not. And as is well-known: post coitum omne animalium triste est.
I don’t mean to suggest he doesn’t have other qualities, but I believe he himself has identified his contrarianism and non-conformity as being exceptional and strongly-related to how he processes the world.
It is bad.
This happens to be very true of Kundera’s novels, which are all but impossible to “interpret” as they frequently declare their own interpretation within the text. I have never written about Immortality, for example, even though it’s the most important novel I’ve read, because there’s literally nothing to say about it that it doesn’t say itself.
We might imagine watching a few thousand sunrises and then “inductively reasoning that we now have enough data to know it will continue to happen,” but this, too, is theory-laden: you theorize that “larger data sets are more reliable than smaller data sets,” or that “things that happen for years are likely to keep happening” (neither of which is exactly true in the sense needed for us to “know” the sunrise will continue to occur forever, which it will not). But it’s worse than that: you are in fact theorizing that “events that occur with the same entities will tend to follow consistent rules,” you are theorizing that “when I see an object on one day and then the next day see an identical-looking object, it is the same object,” and you are even theorizing in a sense that you exist, that your thoughts connect to the outside world, and so on. There’s actually an immense amount of such “theory” embedded in seemingly naked observation. (I am setting meditation entirely aside for this discussion).
“In the beginning was the Word…”
Job happens to be the source of my daughter’s name, which we discovered in my family tree initially but which comes originally from one of his daughters.
One question I had watching this was: do people even have complex relationships anymore? Tortured love affairs? Pathological affairs? They, must, and yet it’s impossible when I read old novels or watch movies like Knight of Cups not to hear the chorus of medicalized moralizing that would greet its participants online: she’s toxic, he’s abusive, she’s dark-triad, he’s struggling with CPTSD, and they all just need medications and group therapy. Does anyone have long, incommunicable, fucked-up, high/low, spiritually rending relationships anymore? (FWIW: I never did, but art is full of them!).
“The search is what anyone would undertake if he were not sunk in the everydayness of his own life. To become aware of the possibility of the search is to be onto something. Not to be onto something is to be in despair.” Percy in The Moviegoer.
And this is another instance of mind preceding perception, because this movie has bad reviews and people roast it; it may suck! But because I love Malick, I was willing to endure and entertain elements of the film I’d likely not have tolerated, or sought to interpret favorably, in another filmmaker; these upstream decisions about whom we’ll trust or apologize for seem higher-leverage than the content of what we evaluate, often, although I do, in fact, think this is a good movie. I just wouldn’t recommend it over most of his others.