The Carrot and the Stick
All of these fatigued and serious faces showed no evidence of despair…they made their way with the resigned expression of those who are condemned to hope forever.
–Charles Baudelaire, To Each His Own Chimera
Human beings are, necessarily, actors who…can be divided…into the sane who know they are acting and the mad who do not.
What made my dreams so hollow?
—Tom Waits, The Train Song
You will not be cured. Live long enough and the realization can no longer be deferred. The expectation you’ve sustained–that has in return sustained you–that over time, with work and luck, you will make yourself whole, is a fraud. A necessary fraud, but a fraud nonetheless. It is not possible. You cannot “find” yourself, as the widely ridiculed cliché would have it–we ridicule it only because it’s naïve to speak of it, not because we aren’t each guilty of the conceit–because your self is not out there to be found. A thing can’t be both seeker and sought. The eye cannot turn upon itself. And the conscious self reduces down entirely to point of view.
But we can’t help trying. Each of us, to the extent we’re not simply waiting out mortality eating, shitting, acquiring, procreating–to the extent we’re human–is a philosopher. We want to know, and the only real object of inquiry left is the conscious self. It’s the last mystery. Everything else is biology, physics, evolution. Technical issues.
The only thing setting us apart from the apes–those living, breathing mockeries of the noble idea of man-in-God’s-image–is our ability and need to form this question. So, if the self is one’s unique identity, and everything else is animal function, then the searching for the self, absurd and impossible, is the only self there is. The physical world, while infinitely vast, is infinitely explainable. Scientific questions will always arise, but so will their answers. We can assume every one of them has a solution, whether we’ve found it yet or not. There is only one question that has no answer: Why? In the first place, why?
Man has gone in search of God and he has found the void. The void will not hear our appeals, will neither love nor judge us, will not put things to rights; it is indifference itself. This pathetic lament is the last argument in favor of the existence of God; but I will not be led by an appeal to consequences–no matter how unthinkable the consequences. I will have the consequences, thank you; you can have the appeal. Take your fairy tale, if it sustains you. But take it somewhere else. I retain my sympathy, even some respect, for the religious. But I’m all out of patience for them.
Should I speak only for myself? Okay then. I will not be made whole; I will die as I was born: unfinished, incomplete, ill-adapted and ignorant. I’m okay with this; whatever the case, there’s nothing else for it, and I’m in no hurry to prove this thesis. And anyway, I could be wrong. Now don’t run off; humor me a bit longer. You’ve got nowhere to go, and besides, none of this is what I came to say. My concerns are of the petty, selfish variety–the only honest kind, in other words.
I’ve always been afraid of two things: beginnings and endings. I’m afraid to “take the leap” into new endeavor; I will stay for years in the same physical or metaphorical place purely out of inertia–often in tormented awareness of the fact. But I fear more finishes and finality–at least some part manifestation of my fear of death. I once took a job selling–or trying to sell–cars. I was thoroughly incapable. I couldn’t “close”. Second only to closing in my dread was opening the sale. Introducing myself. This holds mostly constant for me. The only thing I can bear, the only thing that feels natural to me, is the stringing along of a thing.
I want to fiddle in the middle. Better still to go back periodically, not to the beginning, but to some earlier point. Even as a young boy I recall wanting to go back in time, to correct mistakes, to retrieve something irretrievable–never anything specific. I’ve just always been haunted by the vague suspicion I’ve screwed up. I don’t defend this. I know it’s untenable; I have paid dearly for it. Still, I despise you for not understanding. I despise your practicality. I despise your literal-mindedness, your impatience with all this, your perfectly logical and correct arguments. To hell with your careers, to hell with your ambition, to hell with your concern! To hell with you, closers, and this world of yours!
I say this because there was another, undeniable aspect to my aversion to closing the deal. Something less flattering still. I don’t understand the appeal of bending someone to my will, of seduction–even of women. It repulses me, almost as much as the idea of being seduced. I always feel guilty about it. It is degrading. Maybe it’s really just pride, pathological egoism–I refuse to play along, to compromise. I will not bow, I will not appeal, and I will not act the part. I have a few problems, you see, with my character as written in the script. I want to know who wrote these lines anyway. I will not read them–they are all trite cliché. I’m not feeling it. What about the audience? To hell with them. I didn’t charge admission. I can’t see beyond the floodlights; I’m not sure they’re out there.
Yes, I know–the closing must be done; the cars have to be sold. The seductions, and subsequent screwing, must take place. Somebody has to do it. If no one does it, it won’t get done, and if it doesn’t get done, we’ll suffer for it. But must everyone have join in, for Christ’s sake? Modern life increasingly demands we all be closers–or closed upon. Closers run the world. What about creativity, you say? There are creators–like those who invented the car. But notice: they don’t run things. They have some influence, often very much influence, yes, but they don’t have the last word in this world. It’s right there in the contract: they get a percentage of the gross, but they don’t have final cut. Who does? Politicians? Well, that’s what they call themselves, but what they really are is salesmen. Closers. And what they sell is necessarily corrupted. It’s used by various interests. The world is run by used car salesmen. They even look the part, only somewhat better dressed. Their patter is, if anything, less honest. But this isn’t what I came to say either.
I have given up the ghost–now don’t start, it’s not as grim as that. And some day–it’s inevitable–you will too, if only on your deathbed. You fear this like the onset of dementia in old age, or like falling under the sway of a cult. You see it as death itself. Me, I can’t remember truly caring. I have only wanted to escape it. Now I can’t fake it anymore–yet I have to go on living. The battle has been lost but there is no surrender, no merciful slaughter; no resolution. I must go on fighting–I’m not the type to put a gun to my head. I am too jealous, too greedy, too envious for that, after all my gloating disdain for concern. I’m not leaving this all to you bastards. I might miss something! So I am condemned, not to die but to live.
But I have sinned; that’s the worst of it. Because I have not contributed. It was pride that would not let me step onto the wire. I would not risk it. I have been a free-rider the whole time, the worst kind, the kind who consoles himself with the notion he’s been cheated. But I haven’t gotten away with it; mediocrity is its own punishment. I committed the worst sin of the healthy and sane: I held back. I was a miser, hoarding himself. Recently I read about a “hoarder” who’d been found, dead for weeks, buried in the refuse he wouldn’t part with. That’s how they’ll find me, amidst the half-baked ideas, the false starts, the if-only regrets that are my refuse. For what was I saving myself? What did I expect to happen? I made an assumption that isn’t mine to make–that none of it matters. Now that assumption fails too. What’s the first thing to give with age? Certainty.
Those who act are better, nobler; they operate on faith, on the faith there is meaning, despite all evidence to the contrary. It takes faith to buy in without guarantee. And faith is all we ever had to go on in the end, in the absence of signs.
Ironic isn’t it? But faith is all we have left in the absence of God.