this dungeon where you see me now

First, I did my best to make sure that only the most proper and fitting words were used. Everything was said clearly and simply and no words were wasted. I had signs posted all over the palace and market place which said: Brevity is the soul of wit. But power corrupts, and soon I grew miserly and chose fewer and fewer words, trying to keep as many as possible for myself. I had new signs posted which said: An ill-chosen word is the fool’s messenger. Soon sales began to fall off in the market. The people were afraid to buy as many words as before, and hard times came to the kingdom. But still I grew more and more miserly. Soon there were so few words chosen that hardly anything could be said, and even casual conversation became difficult. Again I had new signs posted, which said: Speak fitly or be silent wisely. And finally I had even these replaced by ones which read simply: Silence is golden. All talk stopped. No words were sold, the market place closed down, and the people grew poor and disconsolate. When the king saw what had happened, he became furious and had me cast into this dungeon where you see me now, an older and wiser woman.
-Faintly Macabre the Which, in Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth

***

Once for all, then, a brief precept is given to you: Love, and do what you want.
-Augustine of Hippo, Homilies on the Book of John

What does Drake mean, exactly, by titling his album Take Care? Is he being compassionate, or telling us to get bent? Or both?

Recently, a friend threw me into a panic. It was quite by accident, I should say, and with no ill-intent. She asked me to stop ending my emails with “take care.” She said she knew it was sincere, but it didn’t seem sincere. It felt cold and left a bitter taste.

I panicked because “take care” was almost the only kind of email signoff I could still use with confidence. A few months earlier, I’d read a very funny column about how not to end emails. The author was sharp and spared no-one. The worst offender, of course, was “Best.” This is how you end an email, he said, to someone you don’t care about. Well, either that, or you are the sort of person who walks into an ice cream shop and actually orders vanilla.

But “Best” wasn’t the only soldier to fall. “Cheers” got just destroyed. I probably see one or two jokes about the word “cheers” every week now on Twitter. The jokes all say the same thing: if you’re not British, and you say “cheers,” you sound like an asshole. “Sincerely” doesn’t work, either. First of all, who are you writing to (other than maybe a business or publication you don’t trust) that you need to frame your letter with protestations of sincerity? Second, are you eleven years old?

There were several others. I seem to remember that “Peace” got mocked for its tie-dye Grateful Dead headband, and for the bumper sticker reading “Visualize Whirled Peas.” (“Peace out” is not better. The only people who should say “peace out” now are hippies who for some reason are communicating on walkie-talkies.) The article was concise, and didn’t even touch various kinds of Jane Austen endings that some people, myself included, still occasionally use. “Cordially,” for example. I think we were already supposed to understand how unfathomably awful it is to spring cordiality on some poor, unsuspecting recipient.

I’d already begun to sense these things, and was cleaving pretty loyally to “take care,” which a friend had once called “the wonderful signoff I learned from you.” After the column, though, “take care” went from a habit to a rule. Now I couldn’t even use that.

Many people have started avoiding signoffs altogether. Their emails just end, as though they were crossing a street and typing their reply out on a smartphone when, sad to say, they collided with a bus. The fact is, you are reading their final words on this earth…or else their boss showed up, waving around what he’s calling “a few little things to fix before we send this out.” Other people will just append their name, as though signing the corner of a spare and elegant abstract painting. (Everything in Helvetica, of course.) Women have an easier time ending emails with “Love” or “xo,” since this isn’t necessarily as flirtatious as it would be coming from a man.

Here’s my guess: our own hyper-mediated knowingness about the problems with various email endings will lead us in two directions. One direction will be the erotic arms race of “Love” and “xoxoxoxo” and maybe even “Kisses,” and men will start using all of these too, because — why not? The other direction will be the hyper-modern whitespace, serene and air-conditioned.

That’ll be our loss. Today’s jokes about “Best,” and “Thanks,” are descended from yesterday’s jokes about emoticons and “LOL” (for example, in Californication) and countless articles on why you shouldn’t insert a quote into your email signatures. This is more than a new player in our never-finished discussions of etiquette; it’s part of our culture, and it’s even in the nature of language. I use emoticons more and more. I sort of miss the bits of Mandela, and Byron, and Tori Amos that used to hitchhike around on emails. My greatest fear is never seeing them return.

Our culture is getting increasingly skilled at satire, and for the most part, that’s a good thing. Whenever I go on a long drive, or attend a concert, somebody near me is usually doing something they should be ashamed to do, yet clearly they’re not ashamed at all. The Tina Feys and Louis CK’s of the world exist to patiently hold up the mirror until these offensive people see themselves, laugh nervously, and cut it out. “Don’t be that guy,” we like to say (or, in the case of VICE magazine, just “what a total DON’T!”). The term douchebag is incredibly useful, all the time. The Stuff White People Like, They Like In Annoying Ways, And Yo, That Is Not Racist. I just clicked over to theonion.com, which is currently featuring a fake column by Michelle Obama entitled “Healthy, Nutritious Food Would Have Saved The Titanic.”

This stuff is so good, and so progressive, that backwaters like Fox News are constantly trying to imitate liberal snark, which ironically enough was pioneered on Fox by The Simpsons. However, at a certain point, the accumulated “thou shalt nots” combine like Voltron into a stubborn knot of repression. As Chuck Klosterman has written, the characters on the American version of The Office often look directly into the camera when they’re exasperated, as though a filmmaker is there. Yet for many seasons it’s been clear that nobody is. So, who are they talking to? Well, if I was Jacques Lacan or that new guy with the beard, I’d argue they’re kissing up to the Big Other. Their raised eyebrows are a way of silently asking Why can’t this boss of ours be normal?

Lacan’s term for all the inhibiting anxiety was “castration,” and although we are naturally anxious creatures (because worrying is a good survival strategy), Lacan is right when he replies that the problem “cannot be solved by reducing things to biological data,” because the phenomenon of shame is so broad and so commonly maladaptive. True story: that quote is from “The Signification of the Phallus,” which I read to prepare for this post. It’s a transcribed lecture, and has just one footnote, which reads “1. The Demon of Shame.” I saw that and proceeded to spend an eternity desperately searching for the place where the little marker “1” appeared. I spent half an hour on it, after reading the essay in ten minutes. Eventually, I found the footnote, but I think my initial failure is more interesting. It is the nature of shame to be everywhere and nowhere. We cannot pin it down.

Language is prohibitive or “castrating” because it is inexact, and very often, when one is uncertain, it is better to do nothing. If somebody tells me to make them a sandwich, I am miles from knowing what they want. If they tell me they’re not hungry, however, there’s no risk that I’ll appear holding a sandwich. A lot of the humor in The Devil Wears Prada comes from Miranda Priestly (Meryl Streep) assuming that people can follow her positive instructions as easily as her negative ones; the new hire, Andie, quickly learns when not to speak, but she still has no idea which designer Miranda does want her to call. In another essay, “The Instance of the Letter in the Unconscious,” Lacan argues that all language is metonymy, i.e. the part standing in for the whole:

The part taken for the whole — I said to myself, if the thing is supposed to be based on reality — leaves us with hardly any idea what are to conclude about [e.g.] the size of the fleet [that the shorthand "thirty sails"] are nevertheless supposed to gauge: for a ship to have but one sail is very rare indeed.

In other words, language is both better at prohibiting things than it is at authorizing them, and tends to be just confusing enough (because it has to represent complex realities in reductive ways) that we deny ourselves even more than the speaker may intend. We read about “deathcap amanitas” — but of course we can’t be 100% sure that we’ve understood their identifying features, so we never pick and eat another wild mushroom. Norton Juster is making a similar point when his character Faintly Macabre, a legislator of language in the very City of Language itself (Dictionopolis), improves her rules more and more, making them better and broader and clearer, until nobody can say a single thing.

Still, we can’t chalk it all up to language. Comedies have always included straight men, but they used to be a little less perfect. They used to be Steve Martin frowning at John Candy in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. Now we get Paul Rudd and Jason Segel in I Love You, Man. Technically, Rudd is the straight man, but he’s funny and preposterous too. In the end, it’s Segel’s character who really has to get with the program. Discussing this with a friend, I said “I’m worried about a world full of nothing but straight men,” an unintentional pun that also contains some truth. Remember all the awkward discussions about “bromances” when I Love You, Man premiered? Far too much pop culture that seems liberated and relaxed is actually both anxious and extremely normative, including heteronormative.

When I watch Arrested Development, I’m rooting for Michael Bluth. After all, it’s the story of “the one son who had no choice but” to keep the others from falling apart. On the other hand, can you imagine Arrested Development without Gob and Lindsay? What would they call it? Consistently Feasible Corporate Routine? The same goes double for The Office without Carell, or Gervais, or their assistant managers Dwight and Gareth. (Exactly. Assistants to the manager.) The people who really get where Jim is coming from are the ones trying to “maximize efficiencies” for the Dunder-Mifflin paper company. As much as my twee-hating side applauds all the satires of Zooey Deschanel, and Natalie Portman’s character in Garden State, I have to say, all we’ve won is another pile of assorted prohibitions. This vacuum produces too much admiration for Don Draper and Jack Donaghy (aka “The Signification of the Phallus”), and too much interest in the little eccentricities of people like Qaddafi, whose lives are legitimately interesting in ways that get no attention — that is, as a case study of a modern rise and fall. The Prince has become hopelessly outdated, yet there’s still no contemporary study to equal it.

I’m not trying to argue that modern life is phony and inauthentic. It is, but that’s nothing new. Anyhow, authenticity usually turns out to be a will-o-the-wisp. Instead, I’m arguing that we should be less pre-emptive. Trying to decide, in advance, that “Best” is insipid or that “Cheers” is pretentious makes us anxious first, and even more insipid and pretentious in the end, once we’re writing each other emails that pretend to be either a) handwritten notes, or b) the sort of menu you get at a wordy, fancy restaurant. I care about how an email ends, but I don’t care in advance any more, and I wouldn’t mind in the least if somebody wrote me tomorrow and ended with something as novel, pretentious, and inexplicable as “Silver days ahead!”

I like the guy who visited me, once when I was deliriously ill with fever, and sat at my bedside for the whole afternoon. We were talking about philosophy, the true and the good, when he suddenly remarked: “I swear by all that’s holy, I wanted to join the chorus and shout ‘Hosannah’ with everyone else. It was right on my lips, it was already bursting from my breast…you know, I’m very sensitive and artistically susceptible. But common sense — oh, it’s the most unfortunate quality of my nature — kept me within due bounds even then, and I missed the moment! For what — I thought at that same moment — what will happen after my ‘Hosannah’? Everything in the world will immediately be extinguished and no events will occur. And so [...] I was forced to quash the good moment in myself and stay with my nasty tricks. Someone takes all the honor of the good for himself and only leaves me the nasty tricks.”

He’s right. We need his sort, the Master Shakes and Jim Morrisons of the world. We need Kristen Wiig’s drunk Annie Walker on an otherwise uneventful flight. My distinguished visitor — I tell you, I have more sympathy for him with each passing day.

***

Their lives were not governed by laws and statutes and rules, but according to their own free will. They rose from their beds when it seemed to them the right time, drank, ate, worked, and slept when they felt like it. No one woke them or obliged them to drink, to eat, or to do anything whatever. This was exactly how Gargantua had ordained it. The constitution of this abbey had only a single clause: 

DO WHAT YOU WILL

–because free men and women, wellborn, well taught [...] such people, if they are subjected to vile constraints, brought down to a lower moral level, oppressed and enslaved and turned away from that noble passion toward which virtue pulls them, find themselves led by that same passion to throw off and break any such bondage, just as we always seek out forbidden things, and long for whatever is denied us.

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