Am reading John Armstrong’s book Life, Love, Goethe, whose short, swift chapters seem to be organized around themes in Goethe’s life, as well as chronology. Ch. 8, “Boredom,” explores how the great writer, in the company of convivial but conventional people, as at the home of a friend, Fritz Jacobi, was bored by the conversation. It was the usual stuff, full of fine and uplifting sentiments — in short, the usual views of the usual people.
Goethe explains what he did in response to such tedious twaddle:
… I was in the habit of making outrageously paradoxical statements in order to provoke the narrow-minded disagreements that people normally get themselves into, and to force them to extreme conclusions. This was, of course, usually offensive to the company and annoying on more than one count….
How often have I found myself in the same position! That is, to stir things up in company, or on Facebook, I’ve taken extreme positions, paradoxical positions, standing or claiming to stand for both A and Z, in order to shake people up, to shape their opinions away from the more tried and true extremes of reactionary self-interest, on the one hand, or PC rectitude, on the other.
Sigh. Provocation is a tough business. Why don’t I let well enough alone and let people ply their dreary platitudes? Maybe because I think that well enough isn’t good enough? Doesn’t provoke interest or thinking of any kind? Or modify our stable, staid, unchallenged opinions?
Because, finally, there’s a value higher than harmony and concord, going along and getting along, for going along and getting along’s sake?
I have a bad habit, on the Internet and in real life, of deliberately nudging or testing people, usually when their beliefs and mine are at variance. This, I learned recently, is called “trolling.”
Sometimes the habit is innocent enough. Too many Facebook posts I’d characterize as “pious,” whether of a religious or psychological nature. Cliches, really, or maxims from deservedly obscure self-help gurus (not to be confused with writers like Shakespeare, Goethe, or Ambrose Bierce). If people can’t recognize the difference between a genuinely profound idea, or sentiment, and something superficial or bogus, I’ll be glad to call their attention to the matter, though it wins me no popularity contests.
In real life, as we say, in the quotidian, where we live and exercise and breathe, I will troll my alt-right acquaintances at the gym I attend. These are the dumbbells that love guns, hate minorities, and have no room at all for reading or thinking. So I’ll say stuff like “I sure hope Pres-elect Twatwaffle will put an end to welfare!” And when they rail against the lazy moochers — welfare mothers with many mouths to feed, fathers with multiple baby mamas — I’ll say, “You mean niggers?” And they’ll say, “That’s what I was thinking.” And I’ll say, innocently enough, “Well, let’s call a spade a spade!”
And if they say, anent the latest violence on the news, “They kill students at Ohio State?,” I’ll respond, “Yeah, it’s another crazy Somali. Why don’t they restrict immigration to white Europeans?” And they’ll say, “Sounds like a good idea to me.”
Meanwhile, the world whirls on, and if we aren’t getting any smarter in the “first post-literate presidency,” we can at least get sassier.
Made my final direct entry in Facebook for a while: “Checking into a Facebook Addiction Clinic for observation and therapy. See you later.”
So I’m checking in to this clinic (in the skies, in my mind) and hanging out there a week or two. You’ll forgive me, won’t you? And do without me for a bit? Thanks for understanding. I have to shake my head clear, that’s all, of the fog of argument and inanity that Facebook has become for me.
Because most of Facebook is inanity — urgent and infantile pleas to “like” my latest dog or baby picture, or agree with a political or cultural position that’s self-evident to the poster and should be to everyone who reads it — I tend to take the opposite tack — and attack what I see as superficial and sentimental positions. As a provocateur, I’ll make statements that even I don’t necessarily believe in or subscribe to. Anything to get people’s goat, really — and they’ll generally let me know where they’re keeping the beast.
In my last issue-oriented post, I poked and prodded and trolled, you might say, for snapping fish, writing simply or not so simply (ha ha):
So I see that “Gun Rights” has become “Gun Pride,” under the aegis of the NRA and its allies. Oh what a laugh. LOL. Laugh silently. Co-opting political slogans like “Gay Rights” doesn’t hide the fact — just the opposite, in fact — that these brave bucks and bravos go out into the woods with their rifles in order to jerk each other off and slaughter Bambis.
And soon I got a response from a friend, not a good friend but a friend, that I might have anticipated but, with my lack of emotional IQ, did not:
Greg you have always been quite an edgy person with your comments but as a hunter myself you have crossed the line with this comment.
I do so enjoy crossing the line! It’s not the same line that George H.W. (Papa) Bush drew for Muammar Gaddafi, I know. Or even the line that Barack Obama drew, with less point and success, for Bashar al-Assad. Comments like my friend’s are not bombs, after all. They don’t take me out for good or behind the shed for a beating. I’m still here, you see, fat and sassy and ready to put up my dukes, aren’t you? For sticks and stones, and bombs and guns, can break our bones, but words will not dispatch us.
We all define lines and edges differently, could be. My friend, if not good friend, has always drawn back from provocative statements I make in person. I see him shrink back, physically, and frown, for he’s a good Methodist boy and bible believer, far as I can see, and would like us, evidently, to stay within the bounds of proper deportment and conversation, as John Wesley and brethren might have defined them.
In fact, I don’t care if he’s a hunter. I certainly knew that Facebook harbors hunters, among others, with or without secret blood and lust for deer, turkey, bobcat, wild boar, you name it. I know that not all Facebook readers have my literary education, and are not trained, or tainted, in rhetoric that’s hyperbolical, in your face, smack up against your gob. I was out for blood, could be, if only literary or literate blood. I wanted to taunt and dare the comfy hunters among us, the gunslingers, to question why they used guns and how they enjoyed them.
(Someone even reported me, for this post, to Facebook as being in violation of its standards — lax and pliable as they may be. In its message to me, Facebook cited a complaint about references to “nudity” but followed up with a second message, shortly afterward, judging me not guilty of inciting prurient interest. After all, I didn’t describe and linger deliciously over sexual organs or a particular sexual act. If I had, how scary would that be in America, land of the free and the home of the NRA? We know what’s right, after all, and what’s too filthy for words!)
No, I don’t literally believe, of course, that hunters are jerking each other off in the woods. But I certainly strongly feel that among male hunters out in the woods, without women and domesticating restraints, with booze and bullets and London Bridge and boundaries falling down, there’s a homoerotic impulse. (As there is in football, or boxing, or just slamming down a few brews at the bar.) And I wonder if this impulse is part of the desire to kill. In other words, if lusting for the blood of an animal and lusting, at whatever level of consciousness, for another male aren’t intertwined.
I’m no psychologist, or psychoanalyst, though I have dabbled in the literature. I have also read scores of sophisticated literary works that take up, and consider, extreme positions on social and cultural problems. If artists don’t do this, who will? Without shooting, I mean? Without enforcing their ideas with lethal weapons? Words are simply words, with no power to kill, or maim, but some power, it could be, to challenge and change.
You’d hope so, anyway, though here and now in America we seem to be convinced of the rightness, and righteousness, and inviolability of our own positions. No one will tell us what to think, or what to do. We know, by god, what we know. So we go to Facebook, among other places, armed with conviction in our position, our a priori rightness. And if someone challenges this cherished position, we lash out, bellow, jump up and down and stomp on the questioners and nay-sayers.
So, friends, Romans, countrymen, I’m checking into the Facebook Addiction Clinic for a while. You won’t hear from me anymore for a bit, boo hoo. You won’t have to “like” or hate my comments. You won’t have to challenge me not to cross your lines or violate your boundaries. I’m outta here for the time being. I’m grabbing a beer, and communing with the better, and worser, angels of my nature; I’m continuing to research, and reflect on, a novel on the problem of mass murderers and the guns they use. And if I can achieve this, devoting myself to the craft, I will have saved both you and me a lot of grief and a lot of wasted time.
Many friends have written on Facebook, in response to one of those unavoidable interrogatory games (“What career are you meant for?”), that they were meant to be writers.
One friend in particular put his finger on this desire or direction: “… perhaps we are all like-minded individuals, artistic and expressive as well as communicative with thought and feeling. We tend to gravitate toward others of the same ilk. Which accounts for why we are all friends. You ALL could be VPs at Walmart climbing over the backs of others! Scrambling and headbutting your way to promotion!”
But then, aren’t you glad we are not?
The salary could be comforting, yes. But the scrambling and headbutting, no thanks.
Reminds me of Wordsworth’s lines in his “Ode: Intimations of Immortality,” his neo-Platonic idea that we all start out in another, better place and that our childhood is our zenith:
Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting,
And cometh from afar:
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
Must travel, still is Nature’s priest,
And by the vision splendid
Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.
Shades of the prison house indeed! Wordworth must’ve been looking at the bills piled up on his desk, even in his Lake District cottage, surrounded by nature and attended by his sister Dorothy. Oh well, he didn’t have Walmart to contend with anyway.
Writers can indeed be “artistic and expressive as well as communicative with thought and feeling,” and where in the corporate world do you get that chance? Let’s be frank, fellow neo-Platonists, heaven is a long long way from the Walmart vice presidency. There’s the Muse, as one friend has put it, and the Meatball, and evidently we’re meant to choose between ’em.
If we’d all invested in Facebook at the start, we’d all be rich. And have no need to scribble for a living.
On the other hand, scribbling, in whatever form, can be fun.
Ask your friends and neighbors, who may spend way too much time on Facebook, where you can cop a plea for sympathy or attention now. Or send an IM that explodes on your world with the force of an IED.
Such scribbling isn’t necessarily publishable in any other form. It’s not the kind of writing that goes on your resume. Or establishes you as a serious writer or communicator.
Yet serious writing and communicating, too, can be fun. It doesn’t have to be dull or packed with jargon or cliches. It can be alive to the needs of the moment and the needs of your particular audience.
Having written for many years, and taught college writing too, I have strategies for making your communications fun and effective, whether you write them yourself or enlist the aid of a pro like me.
Let’s start by brainstorming, shall we? Wasting time together in one of those paradoxical playful sessions that rewards itself many times over.
You first! Put down a word. Think of another. Think of your audience — that grateful beast. And then another. (Don’t worry. This is not yet for publishing! Play on!)