praise for the discontinuous

Nurse: He’s recovering in post hoc now. The proctor hoc will be along to speak with you shortly.
-Joseph Kugelmass, Dream Journal

Wiley: Yeah, but I mean like how did you, how did you finally get out of the dream? See, that’s my problem. I’m like trapped. I keep, I keep thinking that I’m waking up, but I’m still in a dream. It seems like it’s going on forever. I can’t get out of it, and I want to wake up for real. How do you really wake up?

Linklater: I don’t know, I don’t know. I’m not very good at that anymore. But, um, if that’s what you’re thinking, I mean you, you probably should. I mean, you know if you can wake up, you should, because you know someday, you know, you won’t be able to. So just, um … But it’s easy. You know. Just, just wake up.
-Richard Linklater, Waking Life

Of the many bad results that I have obtained, over the years, by stubbornly believing in the “dialectic,” undoubtedly the worst has been my conviction that everything we experience takes the form of a fairly coherent and important narrative. If a gun appears on stage in Act 1, it must be fired in Act 3 — this struck me as not only good theater, but basic common sense about the operations of the world. For example, it affected my view of arguments and tense discussions. (I don’t mean that they have to end with gunshots, don’t worry.) Such moments of conflict were painful, of course, but also seemed necessary and ultimately valuable. Clearly, if an argument was brewing, it was because of some deep and important unresolved questions, which were only going to be answered if everyone concerned paid an emotional price now in the name of a happier future. As Trent Reznor put it in one of his song titles, “the way out is through.”

It’s a great time to be considering this issue, because for the next several weeks, we will be treated to a flurry of radio stories, news columns, and Internet-welcome-page splatters, all on the subject of New Year’s resolutions. These stories, which assume that you have in fact made several resolutions, will emphasize two things. First of all, set realistic goals. Don’t say you’re never going to MacDonald’s again. Say that you will only go to MacDonald’s for breakfast, and when you do, that you will try to ease up on the maple syrup. Second, don’t give up on your resolution if you slip up and break it. Resolve to do better tomorrow!

I haven’t made any resolutions, and I’m pretty depressed about it, frankly, because this means I’ve denied myself the pleasure of breaking them. What these experts never discuss — in addition to what on earth they do for the rest of the year — is that it is absolutely delightful to backslide, because it confirms a certain law of gravity holding sway over our lives. I may be ashamed by my moral turpitude, but in the depths of my shame, I can easily recognize myself. Look-y there: it’s the guy from last year! With apologies to Nelson Mandela, our greatest fear is not that this year will be the same as the last one, but that it will be different and bewildering. By playing hide-and-seek with change, we are performing a quieter, modern versions of the old ceremonies held after an eclipse, when the sun emerged again from the belly of the beast. This isn’t merely an issue of self-recognition. We internalize the expectations of people around us, and more than anything else they expect us to be consistent.

When I get into an argument now, I try to keep in mind that the way out is not “through,” because an argument is usually a compound of some important difference of opinion and a lot of flourishes (some verbal, others not) that serve as a declaration of war, and really refer only to themselves. Nor am I trying to suggest, like some couples counselor, that the answer is to “de-escalate,” which goes back to the same idea of continuity: you’ve started digging a hole, now start filling it back in. The way out is to drop the whole thing in its entirety, leaping to a different topic or at least a different angle. Not only is this capacity for sudden change applicable to arguments between people, it is true of larger events, including positive ones. We did not, as a nation, gradually make ourselves ready for a black President, thereby enabling Barack Obama to run a successful campaign. We were instead not ready for a black President until the day he was elected, after which we had a black President, racist protest signs notwithstanding. To say, for example, that MLK and Malcolm X paved the way for Obama’s election, not only erases the radical aspect of the event, but also understates how radically “out of nowhere” those leaders were in their time.

Obviously, intelligent histories depend on a narrative, and that is well and good as long as these narratives describe conditions of possibility, rather than causes and effects. For a long time, I resisted the idea of radical discontinuity because I associated it with an incapacity for reflection. I didn’t want to be a person who described certain things as “better not to think about,” or better left undiscussed. In fact, nothing prevents a free human being from doing both: introducing breaks into a story, while still thinking about what came before. Hegel had a sort of pathological fear of such leaps leaving the world divided and unfinished. Yet the most reconciliatory novel ever written, Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, began with Proust suddenly abandoning the life of a Parisian bon vivant, the very thing he had always been.

There is a Zen koan I have always loved, about a goose in a glass bottle. How do you get the goose out of the glass bottle without breaking the bottle, or harming the goose?

The answer goes like this: There, it’s out!

Happy New Year, everyone.