Friday, February 04, 2011

something old

I've been sifting through half-finished pieces of writing in search of something to read at the One Motorcycle Show storytelling thing tomorrow night. Still not sure what I'll bring, but I did find this, which seems relevant even two years later, despite a few altered details (my apartment is kind of huge now, for example, and my couch is from IKEA - gross). It's kinda wordy and ponderous. And it has the feel of an argument I'm trying really hard to convince myself to buy; I'm not at all sure anymore that it's so dangerous to own things.

But still.

Well, anyway - have at it.

In Defense of Immaturity

I've lived in the same tiny studio apartment for years. In the kitchen there is a single spoon, one knife, one fork. The first time my mother came to visit, I told her she had to bring her own set of utensils. She also had to provide her own towel, washcloth, pillow and blanket. "I never want to own more than what I can fit in my car," I explained to her, as we sat cross-legged on my floor drinking wine out of rinsed-out jam jars. (She never complained.) Years later I sold the car, and my rigid aesthetics instantly softened. Without a physical limit on their number, possessions creep up on you. They fill the space allotted.

Most of the things I have - a coffee-stained Pier 1 loveseat made of foam, a creaky chest of drawers, two chairs, a few lamps - were thrust upon me by a family friend who was cleaning out her basement. I didn't ask for them. But the weight of ownership can be seductive. Before long, the chairs needed a desk, the lamps called for end tables, the couch demanded an ottoman.

An ottoman! Ten years ago I didn't even know what that word meant. It sounded exotic (presumably Turkish?), like some variation on the humidor - a decadent contraption safely confined to the adult world. At the time I was 27, arguably in the adult world myself. But I was committed to the principle of immaturity, all stubborn and pure in my insistence on childish things.

I'm still committed, but these days it's more complicated. Immaturity now strikes me less as a character trait than a position staked out. I'm not alone in defending it; most of my social circle cultivates a studied immaturity. In the '60s, people dropped out of the grown-up world; these days, we opt out. We don't like the rules, so we refuse to play the game. By this age, one should have made certain adjustments to one's lifestyle: acquired a mortgage, a mate, some manners, possibly even a regular job. I, on the other hand, live in a garret furnished with castoffs. I date boys in their twenties, and never for long. I don't know how to walk in heels or wear lipstick. Formal dinners terrify me. I don't have a retirement account; most of the time I barely have a checking account. My work entails whole days of reading comic books or watching movies and writing about them. I also write travel guides, which allows me to leave the country for several weeks every few months - a handy way to escape unwanted social entanglements.

What this sounds like, even to me, is a blatant shirking of responsibility, a cowardly refusal to grow up and do one's share. But the kind of immaturity I'm talking about is both more difficult and less silly than it seems on the surface. I know this because I'm constantly on the verge of losing it. The firm conviction I held at age 27 is, ten years later, more like an inclination, fragile and under assault. What immaturity really means is resistance. (Resistance to what, exactly? To the anaesthetized trudge of most of the world, to resignation, to just getting through the day.) And resistance is the one thing people get worse at the more they practice it. The world pushes in on you, on all of us; there's a tremendous pressure to take part, grow up, behave. It was easy to ignore this pressure when you were still the age at which everyone expects you to rebel. It gets exponentially more difficult as you get older, as the number of your allies shrinks and the awful machinery of commerce roars in your ears and the spectre of unrelieved struggle lurks ahead. Resistance tires people out. Sometimes you just want something soft, some easy luxury; you can't help it, you want some small margin of comfort in which to rest and put your feet up.

You want the ottoman. But you must not have it. You can't give in. Because it's not just an ottoman, of course; it's an instinct made manifest, and it's a bad instinct. Buying the ottoman means giving in to an urge toward domesticity, toward settling down, toward putting your energy into physical things - things that you will then own and worry about losing. Domesticity isn't inherently destructive, nor is it merely a chance to be lazy; but when it's adopted as a means for escaping the hard work of rebellion, or as a big fluffy bed into which the exhausted former adolescent wishes to collapse, it's a mistake. That kind of domesticity shifts one's energy from action to object, and it narrows the focus of fear until the most pressing threat is the loss of those objects.

The danger isn't simply personal. It can seduce whole movements. When the New York intellectuals of the 1930s settled down and started taking jobs as college professors, their radical spirits flagged. Russell Jacoby in The Last Intellectuals says this happened because, having achieved a measure of acceptance and a sense of security, they were suddenly afraid of losing it. Their alliances shifted subtly but irrevocably toward security, away from risk. Public life began to deteriorate; in Jacoby's view it has never recovered. By 1957, Norman Podhoretz was counseling the former bohemian radicals of Greenwich Village to "stop carping at life like a petulant adolescent" and "get down to the business of adult living."

But living isn't a business, or it shouldn't be. The goal of a business is to expand its worth, as measured in dollars; that's a warped goal for a human life. Besides, it doesn't work: we now know how easily all those things we're supposed to have achieved in the business of life - the house, the job, the retirement fund - can vanish just like any other object. Security is not acquired through possessions; it's a feeling. And although I sometimes forget this paradox, I feel the most secure when I'm the most completely immature.

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