"Let Facts Create You": The End of White Lotus, Season Two
Along with a lots of nonsense, there are spoilers in this post.
Some of my all-time favorite advice comes from the diaries of the Polish émigré writer Witold Gombrowicz; in a passage I’ve quoted hundreds of times, he practically yells at contemporary artists whose work is referential and theoretical to the degree that little essays must be affixed to gallery walls to explain why the hell anyone should care about it:
Stop pampering art, stop –for God’s sake!– this whole system of puffing it up and magnifying it; and, instead of intoxicating yourselves with legends, let facts create you.
“Let facts create you” is an injunction of immense breadth, especially today. Far beyond the narrow art scene, we are all in the business of “puffing [our selves] up and magnifying [them]”; we are all “intoxicat[ed] with legends,” legends of ourselves and “who we are.” Our pitiful “bios” on Twitter and elsewhere tell the phony tales. Before the Internet, billions of us had —if you can imagine it— no bios at all: no declarations of identity or affiliation, no essay accompanying our face to guide others’ interpretations of us. This is not to say we “simply were.” Humans are never simple, and everything online has antecedents.
But today, to a truly novel degree, we are all, always, performing; and we must be performing, for we are in fact on stage. What the Internet has done more than anything else is create a ubiquitous audience, a scaled and incoherent Greek chorus observing everything everywhere and hectoring us with their opinions. As social creatures, we interiorize this audience, model it as naturally and persistently as we model the physics involved in walking, and bring it into our most private and inner spaces. The voices of strangers online echo in your bathroom; the entire timeline is with you in your bed.
But “the crowd is untruth”; the timeline doesn’t know you and indeed doesn’t know shit. No one does. In a prior discussion of The White Lotus, I mentioned that Cameron seemed to have achieved “better living through naive philosophy,” and if nothing else the Internet has emphatically demonstrated the practical uselessness of theory and culture against the primal forces of human life: sex and death. Ethan carries the New York Times’ editorial board into his intimate moments and fucks them all up; Cameron is empty-headed and responding to what his body feels and doing much better than his erstwhile roomate. It’s not beginner’s mind, but it’s a start.1
If show-runner Mike White has a message, perhaps it’s this: let facts create you. Another way of putting it: be good; be bad; but do not be deluded. If you are what you are, for better or worse, others can reason about you and take or leave you. If you’re deluded about who you are, you ensnare others in your self-deceptions, you punish them for failing to reflect your lies back to you, and you hurt them as you hurt yourself with your mismanaged and incoherent performances. You are Jack, yelling inarticulately at Portia to “leave it,” because you yourself cannot face the truth. And you are hurting her.
The first moral imperative, as has been known for millennia: know yourself. The second: let others know you. The third: know others. Pay attention.
My friend and fellow publication tycoon David Cole said —in one of countless discussions we’ve had that changed how I thought about this show— that The White Lotus asks its characters and audience the same question again and again:
Are you paying attention to what’s in front of you, or are you experiencing a layer of abstractions and frames and narratives?
What David means is: is your inner experience —your internal monologue; your thoughts and feelings; your judgements, plans, hopes, dreams, reactions, and fears— being driven
by reality, that teeming and irreducible kaleidoscope of self and world that resists all our efforts to know, that escapes easily any stable categorizations we seek to impose, that is constantly new and strange no matter how much intellectual labor we invest; or
by the intellect, that pristine and ordered landscape of concepts, stories, categories, procedures, affiliations, and affinities that transform dynamism to stasis, novelty to expectation, and reality to diagrams and charts and essays?
You can phrase this distinction in many ways, but the operational element in question is attention. That Buddhism —one of White’s interests— is fixated on attention is less surprising than that other religions and philosophies are not. It is, after all, the part of the mind we have the most control over, and it in turn has the most influence over “who we are” and “how we feel” and so on. No one knows what it means, practically, to “change what you believe” or “improve your soul,” but we can all try to pay attention to different things and see how we are —or are not— thereby reconstituted as something new.
As an example: I’m prone to bad moods; I get paranoid, resentful, self-pitying, and ungratefully depressed, despite having no problems I consider adequate justification for such spells. I am not so different from a resort guest melting down over trivia. I think often of William James’ remarks on this kind of mood:
The attitude of unhappiness is not only painful, it is mean and ugly. What can be more base and unworthy then the pining, puling, mumping mood, no matter by what outward ills it may have been engendered? What is more injurious to others? What less helpful as a way out of the difficulty? It but fastens and perpetuates the trouble which occasioned it, and increases the total evil of the situation. At all costs, then, we ought to reduce the sway of that mood; we ought to scout it in ourselves and others, and never show it tolerance.”
When I’m in one of these “pining, puling, bumping mood[s],” I employ a very simple technique: I try to pay attention to the visual world around me. What this means literally is that
I try to put my focus on objects, the surfaces of things, the light in the space I’m in, textures, arrangements, the room itself, and so on;
I try to count things sometimes: how many windows does this conference room have; how many shelves are in that bookcase; how many trees can I see from this bench; etc.; and
I try to describe the situation purely visually, with no editorialization or interpretation. “The room was spacious, cold, brightly-lit by fluorescents that flickered faintly. The chairs had been rolled indifferently into strange, chaotic positions by those departing the prior meeting.” Etc.
Often when I do this, no matter how pitiful or dull the surroundings, my mood is nearly immediately improved. I don’t mean that I’m suddenly euphoric or that my problems vanish, only that there is something rapidly consoling and calming about merely paying attention to where the fuck I am, which I almost never do. Usually, I am “in my head,” engaged in arguments and debates and bickering and recriminations against myself or others; but when I relocate the focal point of my mental activity to nearly any external reality, I am soothed. And this is usually just the start. For, despite my best efforts, editorialization and interpretation usually surge back quickly, but when they proceed from e.g. “my observation of how light falls across this particle board table,” they go in happier directions, more useful directions. I might think about all the people who worked together to make this conference room possible, without knowing one another or having the same purposes, and marvel at the spontaneous organization of the world and all that it produces, instead of continuing to ponder whether so-and-so hates my guts.
Coming back to physical reality from the netherworld of my default mind is a relief: I escape the din of interiorized voices and texts, the chatter of the reactive classes, the waste of my own empty anxiety and projection and all the dull nonsense it bothers me with, and simply pay attention. I should do this a lot more than I do, but I’ve always been lazy. Like many of the characters, I cling to my routines and habituated psychological patterns. It takes strange, unseen moments for most of us to realize we are not what we thought, that our internal monologue is a distraction, not an essence. Such moments are truly fraught with risk.
Beyond such moments being dangerous, attention isn’t a silver bullet. Too late, Tanya pays attention: she talks to Portia and listens to her anxieties, takes them seriously; she observes the men she’s met and considers their motives; she thinks about what she represents to them and she remembers the entanglements —financial and romantic— that, in many ways, she’s been trying to forget. And she experiences what appears to be a triumph: shooting her way through the Greek chorus attempting to use her for their own purposes, one round at a time.
But Tanya doesn’t remain attentive or serious. Indeed, seconds after killing a handful of men, her marvelous self-centeredness returns in full force, and she pesters a dying Quentin about whether he knows if Greg is cheating on her! Quentin truly gets his just desserts: to expire under the weight of Tanya’s guileless solipsism. Then, and again true to her nature, she overestimates herself and underestimates the complexity and consequentiality of the world and, in the goofiest possible way, accidentally kills herself. She achieves “the last immersive experience” of death, as she calls it earlier, although it’s questionable whether we are immersed in it at all, and is carried posthumously around a small part of Italy by the very waves which have swelled and crashed and swelled again endlessly throughout the show, punctuating moments of change and moments of stasis with their ceaseless, indifferent activity. She’s gone beyond Monica Vitti; she swims through the Mediterranean like a goddess in a myth. But she didn’t “change.” And rather than a moment of profundity, she perishes in ridiculous, comic slip-up.
We all want epiphanies. Another thing the Internet —with its heavy emphasis on text, on argument, on insight, on exegesis— has amplified in us is the addiction to the feeling of being transformed by knowledge. Every morning we wake and start scrolling, hoping to find something that lifts us out of ourselves or refashions the world cleverly; we want to believe that we understand the “4D chess” or “the real story” or “the root causes” or “how people really feel in relationships” or whatever else; the posts that give us this feeling ricochet around the world like a pipe in a crack house. Best of all are the simulations of deep comprehension: articles or memes that seem to shift everything suddenly, giving us the satisfaction of high-leverage intellectual and spiritual compression. “This really changes how I see things.” And: “Lots of other people don’t understand this, but they should.”
And indeed, we have a lot of epiphanies! A lot. Suspiciously many, if we were to track it closely! Slack-jawed and thumbing, we “do the work”; we feel seen; we’re changed, our lives are changed, our world is changed, over and over and over. Yet nothing changes. If you’d been in a coma for the past 10 years and had missed every single post you read, how different would you be? How different would the world be?
In War and Peace, the character Pierre Bezukhov is an epiphany-junkie too (the Internet didn’t create this problem, it simply scaled it, a general truth about the Internet). Some readers interpret Pierre’s arc as one of growth —he believed in A, then B, then C; he dedicates himself to X, then, Y, then Z— but Tolstoy is careful to include in his controversial coda a note that Pierre is off again, this time in Moscow organizing political activities, with a new group and a new worldview. Pierre will never stop “transforming,” which means he is never transformed from being “someone transforming”; Pierre is always on some new monocausal shit. As with so much of human life, he is paradoxical: dynamism in service to stasis.
We all know people like this, who experience themselves as dynamic but are as repetitive and empty in their generic enthusiasms as ChatGPT. Many conversations oblige us to pretend to believe the egregious misrepresentations of self and life others are prone to; people can be so delusional about the seemingly straightforward questions of “who they are” and “what’s happening in their lives” that it sometimes seems like true confabulation! It’s horrifying to encounter because it’s both bizarre and hopeless: if you don’t have an accurate sense of who you are and what’s happening in your life, nothing you do will produce the results you expect (and perhaps desperately need). I assume many people who’ve known Tanya have had this exact experience: listening to her demented and pathetic and false ideas about herself and her life, knowing there’s no possibility of opening her eyes, and worrying about where it will all lead. Of course, it all leads to death; everything does.
Amusingly, it’s very frequently the case that the stories people tell themselves are the exact opposite of the truth. Bullies often narrate that they are victims; self-styled victims often turn out to be manipulators; manipulators are often themselves controlled by phenomena they cannot overcome (or sometimes perceive); and so on. This, too, has been made worse by the Internet: whereas once, your false representations were contradicted by how people experience you in real life, now these stories remain intact for years until someone from “the real world” does a tell-all post: “Actually, while he talks a good game, he’s a total asshole.” As ever, the mechanism of psychological projection is behind much of this. It's a mercy we usually cannot see ourselves engaged in the same scams as our deluded interlocutors; whenever I catch a glimpse of myself telling these deranged little stories about myself to myself, I sweat with shame.
In our collective defense, it's not always easy to discern when narratives and abstractions are useful and when they’re deceitful flights from reality. After all: the idea that “paying attention” is important is itself a narrative, in a sense, or an abstraction, in another. An additional outstanding observation David made: when, in the penultimate episode of this season, Jack lectures Portia on how she should live in the present and focus more on what’s lovely about life and the world, the same advice has two meanings:
For Portia this is probably useful and sound; she is too bound up in abstractions and narratives and concepts and judgments, is confused about who she is and what she wants, is lingering in the disturbed stasis of her strange job while unhappily wondering when she’ll be able to live. She could, in fact, let go a bit, live now, pay closer attention to the world and to herself, and be happier for it.
For Jack, this is all “cope”: he’s living an extremely dark and compromised life, is being used, is down bad, and his talk about cherishing the moment is a rationalization allowing him to linger in his own disturbed stasis, his own debasement and exploitation without acknowledging the damage it’s doing to him. “Be here now” is nice advice, but is not really what an alcoholic sex slave needs to hear.
Sometimes a narrative, concept, or abstraction is what you require to break through; sometimes, it’s exactly what prevents you from breaking through. There is no reliable meta-theory to tell us when it’s the one or the other; it’s individuated, contextual, and besides all that depends on many things we do not have: a stable teleology of being, a complete theory of mind and self, etc.
I think of Mike White and The White Lotus as having essentially a pluralist-Buddhist worldview. First, the world is too varied for any single position to fully account for all of its dynamics; the kaleidoscope is always turning, anyway. What’s good for Portia may not be good for Jack; indeed, the advice that’s practically killing Jack —the advice to let go— may save Portia’s life. But second, an enormous number of people are trapped in their basically intellectual or interpretive systems of belief: they do not know who they are, they do not know what they’re doing, and they do not see their lives or the world, only substitutional stories that serve unhealthy psychological purposes. They aren’t paying attention, and the replacement of reality with heavy, silly stories harms them in an additional way, too, beyond the errors of ignorance it produces: when you live in your head, your experiences all have an inescapable sameness. It’s bad enough that e.g. Ethan has no clue what will make him happy and makes serially inept choices as a result. But a more familiar element of his nightmare is that even in Italy, he’s still living in the same space as he does back home. And since that space —his inner world— is utterly familiar to him, there is no possibility of new experiences which might catalyze escape! Everything becomes grist for the false-self-mill. Wherever he goes, there he isn’t. The White Lotus, as a resort, is an island of self-immersion in the seas of a stupefyingly beautiful world we aggressively ignore so we can nurse our belabored grievances and fantasies. While we scratch at the screen for fake epiphanies, we’ll do anything to avoid seeing, to avoid being taken out of performances; then we’ll do anything to convince ourselves we’re not blind and to feel something new.
For Ethan, the “something new” was an immoral act that constituted victory over Cameron, and a secret to keep from Harper; it appears he “needed” both. As Daphne leads him down a beach to a secluded grove, away from the resort and away from other guests, Ethan says nothing. He is not trying to make sense of it or to tell a story; he may, for the first time, simply be observing: observing the scene and observing himself and what he feels. He wants. He is angry. There is no milquetoast blog-post take to be written, only vital and dark forces to contend with however he will. There probably isn’t even sense to be made, only experience to be had. He has opened to the world; it took enormous pain for him to do so, as it often does. Later, Harper and Ethan are shown happily cuddling in an airport lounge. But I think you’d be foolish to assume that “they’re fixed”; another part of their odyssey is beginning, that’s all.
The endlessness of this all is important. I suspect Mike White intends for this show to address our moment in time; that is, this is not a purely eternalist work, but rather a response to the zeitgeist. For example, I think White believes the men of the world need to understand why Camerons appeal to women and what they’re good at (or good for), because we’re currently drowning in Ethanism. But this is not the same as White saying that “Daphne and Cameron are good people,” or that “this is the template for a successful marriage.” It is only to observe that as a culture, we may have largely exhausted the possibilities for the Ethan-type, and may be in need of new —or old— forms of being.
Much has been made of how Ethan and Harper become Cameron and Daphne, but as any parent can tell you, Ethan and Harper have no fucking clue who they’re going to be. These aren’t the final dilemmas of their married life; this is practically the beginning. And the same old defense mechanisms and identity fantasies and mediated performance tendencies will recur: Ethan will want not to discipline their child, because he’ll think of himself as “too moral” or “too advanced,” while Harper will regret that the child is growing up with a “weak” father and is turning into a brat, even as she despises “toxic masculinity” and the idiocy it produces. No one knows how to raise a child, anymore than they know how to love or be loved, or what relationships are “for” or “about,” or what life is for or about! Perhaps they can book another vacation and hope random collisions with reality will sort them out again. But I wouldn’t count on it. The restlessness beneath human nature does not permit returning to the same well forever. Just ask Bert, who will not get the homecoming he longed for. However endless some of these cycles seem, they are not endless; indeed, that they will end is the one thing you know.
One day, you will go on your last trip; you will undergo your last “transformation,” real or not. There will be no more journeying down these roads, not because you arrived at a destination, but because you can no longer walk. The freedom from wanting that you seek all your life is achieved without you, because you are the wanting, the grasping, the red-in-tooth-and-claw beast straining to dominate as surely as you are the angel seeking peace and harmony. I am very excited that White has said the next season will be concerned with death.
As I mentioned in a chat thread, I adore how much The White Lotus seems to occasion fairly profound and open conversations within and between couples. Nearly every pair I know who is watching it finds something resonant and provocative to discuss. Even online, there seems to be an unusual amount of self-reflection in e.g. comment threads; there’s the usual “so-and-so sucks,” but there’s also quite a lot of “I’m worried I suck.” It feels novel to me; I can’t recall similar explosions of introspection accompanying other shows, but it’s possible I merely missed them.
The plain truth is that no one knows anything about relationships, love, life! It’s a scandal. Everyone lecturing one another all the time when no one knows anything, when no one can even see themselves clearly! For art even to scour away the intellectual and cultural noise is enough; for it to additionally focus so much attention on the dynamics these spheres of ignorance and delusion is practically prosocial in the current moment.
Like a lot of people, I find Daphne to be the most impressive character. What provokes people to esteem her is, I think, her unflinching determination to make of her life what she must to be happy within it. Many object: “She should just divorce Cameron!” Yes, and then what: divorce the next man to disappoint her, as all men will (even if not in so dramatic a fashion)? Move to the next town, then the town after that? Life is here, now; the desire to get everything configured perfectly is childish and impossible anyway. Daphne improvises; Daphne is not in denial; Daphne does not pretend. She is, very obviously, not a moralizer, and I think White tips his values a bit in making her such a heroine. She is knowing. And White wants us to know a bit, just a bit, about ourselves and our fellows, and to stop puffing everything up. Daphne has let facts create her.
I want to relativize this a bit, because we should avoid being pat: Daphne experiences real pain, real betrayal, and we have no idea where her marriage or life will go (beyond that it will end in the grave). The effort to pretend to higher morality can produce higher morality, in individuals and in societies. None of this is simple, I don’t think. White isn’t asserting that we should all be like Daphne, only that many could use a bit more Daphne in them.
My favorite Bert moment wasn’t the awful —and to me, so far under-interpreted— scene with their distant relatives. It was rather that, as with Tanya, Bert moves rapidly past epiphanies back to his original nature; we may lose sexual vigor, but in our old age, the refractory period that follows a new insight is shorter than ever. After telling Albie and Dominic that you can’t go home again, that there will be no woman waiting to embrace you in the end, he immediately goes to the piano lounge and starts flirting with the piano playing prostitute Mia. In the final episode, she embraces him at the end of their trip and thanks him for his support, and he gets aroused. We will not escape sex or death or being human! Stop trying!
In addition to not understanding the three Italian Di Grasso women, I felt I didn’t quite understand Quentin and his entourage. What, if anything, do these groups represent? Any thoughts are welcome! It’s hard not to contrast the two groups: the poor banshee women and the rich murderous men of Sicily. Surely the one or both of them have some symbolic role in this story, but I don’t know what it is!
That dumb jocks make people happier than smart nerds has been a problem for the latter demographic —and for me specifically— since the dawn of time. Much cope has been generated, but the fact remains.