(a golden oldie, published by Generator 21, The World's Magazine, 1999)
Married men will comprehend this dilemma instantly. You love your wife, but find yourself sexually attracted to another woman. What to do?
There are plenty of options. You can go to the nearest sports bar and watch Monday Night Football, postponing the problem of individuality. Marvel and shout and criticize in tempo with the mob. It's a no-brainer. You'll laugh it off, drink it down, and deny the existence of a unique self, separate from your spouse, individually free as a matter of moral and constitutional right. Alcohol does an excellent job of clouding the issue, drowning your brain in sentimental reverence for kith, kin, and the Broncos (without Elway, sniff!)
Or you can go to church, an all inclusive trip to the infinite and universal. New Age, Catholic, Alcoholics Anonymous, Branch Dividian, or Mormon, it's the same cheerful hymn, to merge and forget Thyself in the grace of communion and eternal predictability. Two shows a day, ample parking in rear.
Ask your lawyer for advice. He'll warn you about tax consequences. Ask your doctor. He'll smile and reassure you that there's nothing to worry about; it's normal and natural. Ask a pal. She will state exactly what you should do and not do, divined from a single moral imperative: No one may indulge a silly selfish impulse, separate from the good opinion of others. The path to Self is a minefield of unpredictable consequences. All you're likely to discover is the wisdom of the ages, which is: Keep your nose clean and be a positive role model for youth. In view of our grave social responsibilities, Thou shalt not press thy luck.
THE DEVIL'S ADVOCATE
Where is this Self we think so special? Factories can predict with accuracy the number of shirts and shoes you will buy, no matter which size you wear. The daily newspaper is never irrelevant to your interests, the grocery store always provides your favorite food, and the mortuary reflects upon your existence with the certainty of a garbage collector. Every day there are more of us to carry away. What claim do you have to individuality, when every man is animal, every life a brief, predictable progress from infancy to surcease? If you wail and suffer, you wail with us all, every heart and every mind alive to the honest fact of our interchangeable mortality. Even our language mocks us, for no one who speaks is separate and unique, cut clean from the legacy of shared commonplace terms. Science proceeds in collective assent. Philosophy seeks one rule for all.
I've done my best to be an individual. In the other place [Free Market Net] my puny character was ridiculed and shunned. Elsewhere, I've been heaped with praise. Governments alternately punished me and sought my advice, which I thrust upon them unwanted and withheld when solicited. Sound familiar? No one digs his own grave enthusiastically. The first impulse to raw individualism is compounded by telling someone in authority -- a parent, a teacher, a priest -- to get bent. Do it often and you will achieve notoriety, perhaps martyrdom. But how "individual" is that? The evil choice seems a perfectly balanced trap. Heads you lose any claim to integrity; tails you lose liberty and wealth.
Individual life is not statistically significant, according to economic theory. It does not exist at all, say behavioral scientists. We entertain ourselves with delusions of uniqueness, a fantasy conducive to survival of the species. Penguins do it, recognizing the "unique" cry of their offspring on a crowded iceberg. Swans do it, swimming in pairs for life. We do it in cocktail dresses and Santa Claus suits and pajamas, swearing fidelity to our partner or employer or drinking buddy, incapable of guessing the consequences and perfectly aware of one's freedom to change his or her mind.
Obligation is a brief honeymoon, depending on whether a relationship grows or freezes, pleases or punishes. From casual observation of the world, I'd say that most folks find themselves frozen and punished, unwilling to exhibit their real Self again. We get an edited, "spun" version of who they are, a public face that conceals a locked vault. If you're observant, you can sense the weight of a hidden treasure in the presence of a big person. It takes forever to convince them that it's okay to open up, to say something deeply personal. Ayn Rand's heroes (John Galt, Howard Roark) hardly spoke at all, except to state a philosophical proof. This is no criticism of Miss Rand. She merely documented how we routinely speak to one another, how we "share" ourselves with others. We declaim facts. We declaim trivial facts, because we're not Ayn Rand.
THIS WAY OUT
Contemplating the predictable result of another social outing, Queenie recently observed that the company of others produces a litany of woe, "the wounds of the awful," she phrased it with precision. While men chuckle their war stories, women trade sadness, emptiness, resignation, and faded cheeriness.
What this demonstrates is the certainty of social pressure -- groupthink -- which flows on contact when you strap yourself to others. But subtract everyone else from your existential awareness (go somewhere in isolation by yourself) and presto! The forsaken, forbidden evidence of Self pops out like an animated, greedy truth, searching with passion and wonder in the earth of individuality, the candid Self that one never dares to reveal in public. It would be pointless and profane to reveal an inner life in public, because spectacle and noise are the twin circus masters of overfed mass communication.
In public, men twist their faces with slobbering glee over sports trivia. In public, women twitter and moan about each other and their men. Practitioners of public relations do both as a job, not unlike those who perform rituals for money and are called priests or whores. But in private, away from the public, they sober up. Put any man or woman indoors (without TV) and watch the miracle of civilization take hold. Actions become purposeful, thoughtful, self-directed. Instead of mimicking or flattering others, solitude inspires productive work.... At home there is no imam to supervise your piety, no gang of thugs at your back, no faceless victim to clean up your spilled milk or to berate with
newly imagined grievances. In private, you are intimately and exclusively confronted by the only person you have a right to obey or resent: yourself. Privacy is the situational source of all growth, improvement, education and morality. It is the fountainhead of art. It is the workshop of philosophy. [DeVoon, "Public Relations," 1991]
Try it. I dare you. Delete everything from your computer that was authored by other people, leaving only that which you created. It can't be done. You need the operating system and application software, products of industrial teamwork. You need the expressions of mathematics and English (or some other ancient, preverbal share of inherited culture). Human history will never be deleted from your knowledge. Work and family life are so deeply fundamental to our sense of purpose, that we seldom think of much else. Pay the rent. Buy the food. Sleep. Pay the rent. Buy the food. Sleep.
I am painfully aware of apparent individuality and diversity, six billion unique lifestyles and hairstyles and nicknames. That's not the problem. The problem is that no one truly wishes to be who they are. I had hoped for a life like David Lean or Stanley Kubrick. In a pinch, I would have settled for Fred Zinnemann. What I got instead was Wolf DeVoon, an isolated beatnik with a second-class brain, whose idea of a good time is a newspaper and a cup of coffee at Denny's.
I often consider the possibility of "self-improvement," in the traditional sense of study, but it seems most appropriate for teenagers. I remember studying like crazy as a youngster, trying to understand the adult world. But youth is a forge; it shapes and twists a personality forever, during the struggle for integration. By age 40, the job of Self is complete and cannot be undone. Odd, isn't it? -- that ours is the first generation in history who will live about half of our existence after age 40, a consequence of vaccines, vitamins, clean water, etc. Fully formed and settled, middle-aged adults experience no challenge or surprise, just more of the same. If youth shaped you into a gambler, then a gambler you remain. Your adult Self cannot be unlearned, only
disowned and hushed.
From age 40 onwards, life polishes and burnishes the public you, smoothing over a few superficial bumps and lumps of personality, but it seldom digs much deeper, not even by accident. Rearranging yourself in middle age is basically impossible. No wonder that Ayn Rand liked the company of younger souls who were still under construction. Young people are infinitely more interesting than fossilized elders -- a fact which Rand acknowledged explicitly in 'The Simplest Thing In The World'. Among other charming qualities, the young ask questions and listen to a thoughtful reply. Seniors ask nothing and declaim spontaneously, whether anybody's paying attention or not.
I fall into the second category. I declaim on these pages, whether anyone pays attention or not. I ask no questions except one: What lurks within the shadow of my Self, the manchild shackled and forgotten in socialized, polished life? It is a question that no one other than Self can answer (if I can persuade a recalcitrant, inarticulate Me to speak up, after a lifetime of compromise).
WILL THE REAL WOLF PLEASE STAND UP?
The real Me is not married, not middle aged. I might not even be male in the traditional sense, because the tradition in question is civilized and polite. If I rummage around deeply enough in the DNA, who knows? I might find a wild predator, an angel, or a rodent. Queenie told me that man is all the lower forms combined -- part lizard, part tiger -- and I have no reason to doubt her.
But I'm certain of two things. I am not female. And I love music.
It's embarrassing to talk about music, because it creates no wealth, does no work in the world. By music, I mean all of the arts: writing, sculpture, dance, film and canvas. I don't dance to the drama of geology and cyberspace. I thrill to the beat of blood in our mammalian physicality, the rhythm of a 12-bar shuffle, and throaty Crown power amplification. I suppose Shaw was right, that hell is full of musical amateurs. Lord knows, I've worked with too many of them, in too many ill-equipped studios and saloons on both sides of the Atlantic. My life has been a search for competence. Larry Withers had it, I think. Claude Smith, for sure. But who else?
Larry painted in Philadelphia, thrown out of the Academy of Art for insubordination. Claude quit voluntarily, shunning the organized world in search of a meaningful "dribble" (powerful abstract expressionism). Frank Zappa was so pissed off that it interfered with his ability to compose and perform. You have to sift through a hundred miles of bad-tempered crap, just to find a fragment of his authentic genius ('Peaches En Regalia' on Hots Rats, the entire Waka Jawaka album and thematic use of horn arrangements for The Grand Wazoo.) Filmmaker Joseph Losey couldn't get arrested in Hollywood, had to beg his bread in Ireland and France. Kubrick was so loopy that he refused to travel in an aircraft. The world of art is littered with human trainwrecks. Jim Morrison. Jimi Hendrix. John Belushi. Freddie Mercury.
This is the sad realm that my real Self inhabits. There is but one God, manifest in cables and quartz lamps, raw stock and eerie blue nothingness on the program monitor, a few seconds before picture start. It rattles like a nervous beehive on the time-code display. It rolls on trucks and lifts and cranes. There is an army for God, two or three hundred deployed with military precision, so that I can sit in a chair and say "action." There is a prison and a sentence, forcing me to write a novel, so I can be freed to work again, someday maybe. I don't know any other measurement of my life, except Someday Maybe.
The panther in me is rising. I can feel it as plainly as the sun on my face and the wind in my hair. Driving my car feels like an overture, foreshadowing battle -- an old, familiar hunger to paint on the screen, to blast through the rock of groupthink and say THIS IS MINE.
An individual is unique. It would be strange and wildly inaccurate to see your Self in me. That's the point. Whoever you are, whichever star guides the deep sense of integrity that's dormant and buried within you, the truth of your life is uniquely yours to cherish or repudiate, but I don't think anyone gets away with a painless normalcy, plain vanilla citizenship, just one of the boys.
There is only one choice: to be or not to be. It's the song of individualism, never happy, never certain, until you rip off the social mask and look inside. Look hard and long, if you dare.