5 May 2019
White – Bret Easton Ellis
So much anger
I was surprised by how I had to take a deep breath to dismantle this disgust and frustration that was all due to the foolishness of other people: adults, acquaintances and strangers on social media who offered up their rash opinions and judgments, their mindless preoccupations, always with an unwavering certitude that they were right.
This anger was new, something I’d never experienced before – and it was tied in with an anxiousness, an oppression I felt whenever I ventured online, a sense that I was going to somehow make a mistake instead of simply offering an opinion or make a joke or criticize someone or something.
What often activated my stress was that other people were always angry about everything, presenting themselves as enraged by opinions that I believed in and liked or thought were simply innocuous.
(...) this anger could become addictive to the point where I just gave up and sat there exhausted, mute with stress. But ultimately silence and submission were what the machine wanted.
Writing for oneself
I never succumbed to the temptation to give an audience what I thought they might have wanted: I was the audience and I was writing to satisfy myself, and to relieve myself from pain.
Growing up: yesterday vs. today
We consumed all of this and none of it ever triggered us – we were never wounded because the darkness and the bad mood of the era [the 70s-80s] was everywhere, and when pessimism was the national language, a badge of hipness and cool. Everything was a scam and everybody was corrupt and we were all being raised on a diet of grit. One could argue that this fucked us all up, or maybe, from another angle, it made us stronger. Looking back almost forty years later, it probably made each of us less of a wuss. Yes, we were sixth and seventh graders dealing with a society where no parental filters existed. Tube8.com was not within our reach, fisting videos were not available on our phones, nor were Fifty Shades of Grey or gangster rap or violent video games, and terrorism hadn’t yet reached our shores, but we were children wandering through a world made almost solely for adults. No one cared what we watched or didn’t, how we felt or what we wanted, and we hadn’t yet become enthralled by the cult of victimization. It was, by comparison to what’s now acceptable when children are coddled into helplessness, an age of innocence.
Not winning but disappointment, disillusionment and pain made joy, happiness, awareness and success both tangible and noticeably more intense, I realized at an early age. We didn’t get ribbons for doing a good job and we weren’t awarded for just showing up: there were actual winners and losers.
There were no answers, just as there were no concrete connect-the-dot justifications of daily life’s randomness: shit happens, deal with it, stop whining, take your medicine, grow the fuck up. If I often wished the world were a different place, I also knew – and horror movies helped reinforce this – that it never would be, a realization that in turn led me to a mode of acceptance.
(...) films could have a kind of far-ranging cultural influence, just as novels could, and both movies and novels now look like art forms of the twentieth century, not the twenty-first. Movies no longer work for us as an exploration of unseen, faraway cultures, unless they’re otherworldly and fantastical.
We are all actors
Actors depend on their likability, and their attractiveness, because they want people to watch them, to be drawn to them, to desire them. Because of this, actors are, by their very nature, liars.
Actors dread criticism and are more wounded by it because, unlike most of us, they live in front of an audience, and criticism means the public might not like them anymore. Criticism means the next job, that next flirtation, maybe the big career-changing payday might not happen. For the actor, criticism is tied far more intimately to survival than it is for any of the rest of us. Or at least it hasn’t been, until lately.
(...) thanks to this burgeoning cult of likability, in a sense, we’ve all become actors. We’ve had to rethink the means with which to express our feelings and thoughts and ideas and opinions in the void created by a corporate culture that is forever trying to silence us by sucking up everything human and contradictory and real with its assigned rule book on how to behave. We seem to have entered precariously into a kind of totalitarianism that actually abhors free speech and punishes people for revealing their true selves. In other words: the actor’s dream.
(...) admitted that on so many levels Patrick Bateman was me, at least while I was working on the book. We shared an illusory and distant relationship with a world that appalled us, yet we both wanted to connect with it. We felt disgusted by the society that had created us, as well as a resistance to what was expected of us, and we were infuriated by the idea that there was nowhere else to go. Patrick says, at one point, “I want to fit in,” and he does and he doesn’t.
I suddenly decided – à propos of nothing in particular – that Patrick Bateman would be a serial killer. Or would imagine himself to be. (I never knew if it was one or the other, which in turn made the novel compelling to write. Is the answer more interesting than the mystery itself? I never thought so.)
I felt disconnected, as if this was all happening to someone else – a feeling of profound separation and alienation had taken over, yet I smiled and pretended everything was simple and nice and that everyone liked me even though this was decidedly untrue.
In this age of the nude selfie, of porn spam and the freedom to find every kind of sex act available on your phone within seconds, it’s hard to remember when nudity was still taboo, private, secret, between covers, and you had to pay for it. Or that pictures with posed models were actually exciting – images that raised the temperature and got things going in a way they simply don’t anymore for most of us, and these photos were our introduction to a deeper world of pornography and actual sex.
(...) sexual images – and since they were so rare we imbued them with a deeper meaning and perhaps made them more powerful and erotic than they actually were.
(...) abundance changed my relationship to nudity and porn: it made it more commonplace, and somewhat less exciting, just as ordering a book from Amazon was less exciting than walking into a bookstore and browsing for an hour or so, or purchasing shoes online instead of heading to the mall and trying on a pair of Top-Siders while interacting with a salesperson, or buying a record at Tower, or actually standing in line for a movie you wanted to see. This cooling of excitement on all levels of the culture has to do with the disappearing notion of investment. When you went to a bookstore or record store or movie theater or newsstand, you took the time to invest a greater amount of effort and attention in these various expeditions than you would by clicking a few buttons – effort and attention that were tied to a deeper attempt to connect with the LP, the hardcover, the film, the porn. You had a rooting interest in enjoying the experience because you’d invested – and were more likely to find gratification because of this. The idea of dismissing a book after five pages on your Kindle, turning off a movie in its first ten minutes after buying it on Apple or not listening through a whole song on Spotify wasn’t an option.
(...) lack of [personal] investment renders everything the same.
(...) the pulse-pounding excitement – the suspense – of the effort you once put into finding erotic imagery has now been lost with the lo-fi ease of accessibility, which in fact has changed our experience of expectation. There was a romance to that analog era, an ardency, an otherness that is missing in the post-Empire digital age where everything has ultimately come to feel disposable.
(...) though I recognize that my aesthetic preferences, like everyone’s, were created within the context of my own upbringing, they also rely on a set of criteria that don’t answer exclusively to victimhood. But these social media critics wanted to imply that my whiteness was an ideological error, that my comfortable unawareness was an indisputable problem, yet I’d argue that living without a direct experience of poverty or state-sponsored violence, growing up without ever being presumed a guaranteed threat in public places and never facing an existence where protection is hard to come by don’t equate to a lack of empathy, judgment, or understanding on my part and don’t rightly and automatically demand my silence. But this is an age that judges everybody so harshly through the lens of identity politics that if you resist the threatening groupthink of “progressive ideology,” which proposes universal inclusivity except for those who dare to ask any questions, you’re somehow fucked. Everyone has to be the same, and have the same reactions to any given work of art, or movement or idea, and if you refuse to join the chorus of approval you will be tagged a racist or a misogynist. This is what happens to a culture when it no longer cares about art.
I think life is essentially hard, an existential struggle for everyone to varying degrees, and that scalding humor and rallying against life’s built-in absurdities and breaking conventions and misbehaving and encouraging whatever taboo is the most honest path on which to move through the world.
(...) in fact I was never good at realizing what might offend someone anyway.
There was no such thing, yet, as thought crime – now an everyday accusation. People also listened to one another, and I recall that as a time when you could be fiercely opinionated and openly questioning without being considered a troll and a hater who should get banned from the “civilized” world if your conclusions turned out to be different.
I was once briefly intrigued by the possibility that the reputation economy might stimulate the culture of shaming – of being more honest and critical than ever – but the bland corporate-culture idea of protecting yourself by “liking” everything, of being falsely positive in order to fit in with the gang, has only grown stronger and more pervasive. Everyone keeps posting positive reviews in hopes of getting the same in return.
What people seem to forget in this miasma of false narcissism, and in our new display culture, is that empowerment doesn’t come from liking this or another, but from being true to our messy contradictory selves – which sometimes does, in fact, mean being a hater.
Those of us who reveal flaws and inconsistencies or voice unpopular ideas suddenly become terrifying to the ones caught up in a world of corporate conformity and censorship that rejects the opinionated and the contrarian, corralling everyone into harmony with somebody else’s notion of an ideal. Very few people want solely to be negative or difficult, but what if those exact qualities were attached to the genuinely interesting, compelling and unusual – and couldn’t there then be a real conversation?
I wasn’t ever offended because I’d understood all works of art were a product of human imagination, created like everything else by flawed and imperfect individuals. Whether it was de Sade’s brutality or Céline’s anti-Semitism or Mailer’s misogyny or Polanski’s taste for minors, I was always able to separate the art from its creator and examine and value it (or not) on aesthetic grounds. Before the horrible blooming of “relatability” – the inclusion of everybody into the same mind-set, the supposed safety of mass opinion, the ideology that proposes everybody should be on the same page, the better page – I remember emphatically not wanting what our culture now demanded. Rather than respect and niceness, inclusion and safety, likability and decency, my goal was to be confronted by things. (The fact that I came from a “conventional” background – although in many ways it certainly wasn’t – might, I suppose, have encouraged my desire to see the worst.) The litany of what I did want? To be challenged. To not live in the safety of my own little snow globe and be reassured by familiarity and surrounded by what made me comfortable and coddled me. To stand in other people’s shoes and see how they saw the world – especially if they were outsiders and monsters and freaks who would lead me as far away as possible from whatever my comfort zone supposedly was – because I sensed I was that outsider, that monster, that freak. I craved being shaken. I loved ambiguity. I wanted to change my mind, about one thing and another, virtually anything. I wanted to get upset and even be damaged by art. I wanted to get wiped out by the cruelty of someone’s vision of the world, whether it was Shakespeare or Scorsese, Joan Didion or Dennis Cooper. And all of this had a profound effect. It gave me empathy. It helped me realize that another world existed beyond my own, with other viewpoints and backgrounds and proclivities, and I have no doubt that this aided me in becoming an adult. It moved me away from the narcissism of childhood and into the world’s mysteries – the unexplained, the taboo, the other – and drew me closer to a place of understanding and acceptance.
The idea that if you can’t identify with someone or something then it’s not worth watching or reading or listening to is now commonplace in our society – and sometimes used as a weapon to attack somebody else: for not being more “woke” by failing to make something relatable; for being racist when perhaps the offender is, for instance, just an uninterested or clueless white person; or for being a sexual predator instead of, occasionally, plainly a douche, a boor, a loser.
Here’s the dead end of social media: after you’ve created your own bubble that reflects only what you relate to or what you identify with, after you’ve blocked and unfollowed people whose opinions and worldview you judge and disagree with, after you’ve created your own little utopia based on your cherished values, then a kind of demented narcissism begins to warp this pretty picture. Not being able or willing to put yourself in someone else’s shoes – to view life differently from how you yourself experience it – is the first step toward being not empathic, and this is why so many progressive movements become as rigid and as authoritarian as the institutions they’re resisting.
Ansari was exploring a particular narrative – the idea that it might be better to protect a marginalized group from being the brunt of jokes – and this seemed problematic, because was it really so progressive to marginalize gays even further by not making fun of them, by not even mentioning them in a roast which by definition makes fun of whoever’s being honored? But in this “inclusive” fantasy everyone has to be the same, must share the same values and outlook and sense of humor.
A genuinely inclusive idea of comedy would allow gay dudes to make fun of other gays and whoever else they wanted to, and straight people to make fun of gays or anybody else. If gay jokes are taken out of the equation, what goes next?
Laugh at everything, or you’ll end up laughing at nothing. As a young writer in Ireland, James Joyce realized, “I have come to the conclusion that I cannot write without offending people.”
My huge generalities touched on millennials’ oversensitivity, their sense of entitlement, their insistence that they were always right despite sometimes overwhelming proof to the contrary, their failure to consider anything within its context, their joint tendencies of overreaction and passive-aggressive positivity people might not like you, this person will not love you back, kids are really cruel, work sucks, it’s hard to be good at something, your days will be made up of failure and disappointment, you’re not talented, people suffer, people grow old, people die. And the response from Generation Wuss was to collapse into sentimentality and create victim narratives, instead of grappling with the cold realities by struggling and processing them and then moving on, better prepared to navigate an often hostile or indifferent world that doesn’t care if you exist.
Their argument was that Charlie Hebdo made fun of people who were already marginalized, and by granting this award PEN would be “valorizing selectively offensive material: material that intensifies the anti-Islamic, anti-Maghreb, anti-Arab sentiments already prevalent in the Western world.” My reaction was the same one I’d had to similar sentiments that were being voiced over the past few years, except now swifter and harder: So. Fucking. What.
If you’re a smart white person who happens to be so traumatized by something that you refer to yourself in conversation as a “survivor-victim,” you probably should contact the National Center for Victims and ask them for help. If you’re a Caucasian adult who can’t read Shakespeare or Melville or Toni Morrison because it might trigger something harmful and such texts could damage your hope to define yourself through your victimization, then you need to see a doctor, get into immersion therapy or take some meds. If you feel you’re experiencing “micro-aggressions” when someone asks you where you are from or “Can you help me with my math?” or offers a “God bless you” after you sneeze, or a drunken guy tries to grope you at a Christmas party, or some douche purposefully brushes against you at a valet stand in order to cop a feel, or someone merely insulted you, or the candidate you voted for wasn’t elected, or someone correctly identifies you by your gender, and you consider this a massive societal dis, and it’s triggering you and you need a safe space, then you need to seek professional help. If you’re afflicted by these traumas that occurred years ago, and that is still a part of you years later, then you probably are still sick and in need of treatment. But victimizing oneself is like a drug – it feels so delicious, you get so much attention from people, it does in fact define you, making you feel alive and even important while showing off your supposed wounds, no matter how minor, so people can lick them. Don’t they taste so good? This widespread epidemic of self-victimization – defining yourself in essence by way of a bad thing, a trauma that happened in the past that you’ve let define you – is actually an illness. It’s something one needs to resolve in order to participate in society, because otherwise one’s not only harming oneself but also seriously annoying family and friends, neighbors and strangers who haven’t victimized themselves. The fact that one can’t listen to a joke or view specific imagery (a painting or even a tweet) and that one might characterize everything as either sexist or racist (whether or not it legitimately is) and therefore harmful and intolerable – ergo nobody else should be able to hear it or view it or tolerate it, either – is a new kind of mania, a psychosis that the culture has been coddling. This delusion encourages people to think that life should be a smooth utopia designed and built for their fragile and exacting sensibilities and in essence encourages them to remain a child forever, living within a fairy tale of good intentions. It’s impossible for a child or an adolescent to move past certain traumas and pain, though not necessarily for an adult. Pain can be useful because it can motivate you and it often provides the building blocks for great writing and music and art. But it seems people no longer want to learn from past traumas by navigating through them and examining them in their context, by striving to understand them, break them down, put them to rest and move on. To do this can be complicated and takes a lot of effort, but you would think someone in that much pain would try to figure out how to lessen it, however great the cost, instead of flinging it at others expecting them to automatically sympathize with you and not recoil with irritation and disgust.
Outrage & opinions
(...) this apocalyptic narrative about the election and the new president was really only that, a narrative, and merely a reflection of a vast epidemic of alarmist and catastrophic drama that American media was encouraging.
(...) it seems that everyone has fallen under the thrall of this idea that we’re all writers and dramatists now, that each of us has a special voice and something very important to say, usually about a feeling we have, and all this gets expressed in the black maw of social media billions of times a day. Usually this feeling is outrage, because outrage gets attention, outrage gets clicks, outrage can make your voice heard above the deafening din of voices squalling over one another in this nightmarish new culture – and the outrage is often tied to a lunacy demanding human perfection, spotless citizens, clean and likable comrades, and requiring thousands of apologies daily. Advocating while creating your own drama and your brand is where the game is now. And if you don’t follow the new corporate rules accordingly you are banished, exiled, erased from history.
An increasing problem in our society is people’s inability to bear two opposing thoughts in mind at the same time, so that any “criticism” of someone’s work is routinely blamed as feelings of elitism, or feelings of jealousy or superiority.
(...) what if all I wanted to do was bang Nick Jonas (a question still) and maybe wrote a fifteen-hundred-word ode, talking about his chest and his ass and his dumb-sexy face and the fact I didn’t really like his music – would that have been a dis on Nick? Or what if a woman wanted to write about how she really hated Drake’s music but found him so physically hot and desirable that she was lusting for him anyway? Where would that put her? Where would that put me? Would either of these pieces raise any eyebrows? Were we then equal? No, not even close, because in our culture social-justice warriors always prefer women to be victims.
(...) a demand was issued suggesting that on the basis of an ideology – because those under discussion were women and/or black – artists needed to be protected from freedom of speech. The outrage directed at Tarantino turned Bigelow and DuVernay into victims. While he’d simply offered his assessments of two movies, the disproportion of the response turned these artists into martyrs, and ironically, in doing so, disempowered both of them. Social-justice warriors never think like artists; they’re looking only to be offended, not provoked or inspired, and often by nothing at all.
(...) neither have I ever tweeted at anyone – as many people do – because to me that seemed too personal, too weirdly intimate, so maybe I never used Twitter the way others thought it was supposed to be used. I saw Twitter as more freewheeling and performative, and I rarely retweeted anyone. I didn’t post links (...) and it was the same with bands and TV shows and movies or any other so-called content. I just tossed off thoughts, with no links or pics. My Twitter feed was opinionated, snarky, sometimes fake sincere, sometimes pissed-off, filled with reactions to good movies, bad movies, books I recommended, books I couldn’t finish, quotations, occasionally just a song lyric from the past. These tweets appeared on my page randomly, in what I thought was the spirit of the site, at any given time of day, but mostly at night, sometimes after a few drinks, no questions, no explanations, just throwing out opinions and expressing myself to the lost souls who’d decided to follow me – though I was never genial in order to attract followers. I didn’t try to be charming.
(...) what had really been lost in American culture was connoisseurship: the ability for someone to recognize the difference between what was genuinely good and what was merely mediocre.
Sheen was blowing open the myth that men would outgrow the adolescent pursuit of pleasure, because flickers of that dream would never go out. Even if you were married and had terrific kids, the dream of living without fake rules and responsibilities, of rejecting the notion of becoming an ideal, a clean and spotless comrade enthralled by groupthink, the dream of being an individual and not just part of some tribe would always survive.
New York in 2016 and beyond was American Psycho on steroids. And despite the connections provided by the internet and social media, many people felt even more isolated and increasingly aware that the idea of interconnectivity was itself an illusion. This seems particularly painful when you’re sitting alone in a room and staring at a glowing screen that promises you access to the intimacies of countless other lives, a condition that mirrors Bateman’s loneliness and alienation: everything’s available to him, yet that insatiable emptiness remains.
During Patrick’s ’80s reign, he still had the ability to hide, a possibility that simply doesn’t exist in our fully exhibitionistic society. Because he wasn’t so much a character to me as an emblem, an idea, I’d probably approach him again by addressing his greatest fear: What if no one was paying him any attention? Something that upsets Bateman terribly is that due to corporate-culture conformity, no one can really tell anybody else apart (and the novel asks what difference does it make anyway?). People are so lost in their narcissism that they’re unable to distinguish one individual from another, which is why Patrick gets away with his crimes (even if they’re in a fictional scenario).
Characters [in a novel] are often like children leaving home, going out into the uncaring world and being either accepted, ignored, extolled, criticized, no matter what the writer might hope for.
Feelings aren’t facts and opinions aren’t crimes and aesthetics still count – and the reason I’m a writer is to present an aesthetic, things that are true without always having to be factual or immutable. But opinions can also change, even if, according to social media, they’re supposed to be forever.