Memory is myth. And one of the most powerful myths that I constructed about my life was about the moment when I realized that I had become stuck in New York, and that my life was simply drifting along without my really being aware of how or why. Don’t get me wrong – New York was and remains my favorite city. There wasn’t a moment in the day that I wasn’t busy either with work or friends or exploring its different neighborhoods and possibilities. I loved it for its unpredictability, its complexity and its infinite surprises. I felt more alive and involved while living there than anywhere else. But it wasn’t until the moment that I read Benjamin Kunkel’s first novel Indecision that I realized that I had gotten it so wrong. Its actually not even a great novel, but nevertheless, it was a fun read. I read for distraction, and remember basically getting bored of the work somewhere half way through. Regardless, it was funny, incisive and deliciously celebratory of the delinquent lifestyle. It was one of the first of many novels I was to read where the protagonist is simply rebelling against his assigned responsibilities in life and choosing instead to waste his days and ambitions lounging around, getting high, and contemplating nothing. Upamanyu Chatterjee’s hilarious English, August remains one of my favorite in this particular genre of literature.
What remains unique for me personally about Kunkel’s Indecision was a line that struck me so hard that it made me question my entire presence in New York City. It came from the main character’s mother, who, witnessing her son’s aimlessness and lackadaisical attitude towards life, comments that in the city…
…you can become more inert than you notice. You can mistake the city’s commotion for your own.
That line struck me hard. It was like a thunderclap that woke me up from a daydream. Of course, this is a part of the myth that I have constructed into a memory. The impact of the line was most likely a slow creeping into my soul than an immediate shock. But the fact is that this line, from what was basically quite a simple and ordinary novel, has stayed with me all these years, and is one I think of when I try to remember the moment I decided that I was going to leave New York and to stop confusing the city’s commotion as my own.
Until then, according to my myth / memory, I had stopped paying attention to the possibilities of life and simply gotten seduced by the noise of the city and its chaos. I was doing so many things, but I was actually doing nothing at all. Like a swimmer caught in a strong current he can no longer swim against, I was being pushed along in life, but without the freedom to decide where and towards what. In fact, I would rarely even think about where things were heading. I just went along wherever the commotion took me. It looked and felt like I was making life when in fact I was simply allowing it to happen. Between the demands of the job, the drinks with friends over weekends, the morning brunch get togethers, the shopping in Soho, the frivolous and rather infantile pursuit of the next fashionable bar or dining site, nearly a decade went by. I had done nothing. Without paying attention I had lost my own self, surrendered my agency, and forgotten my own dreams and sense of imagination. I had allowed the city to do all that for me, and confused its largely consumerist, and professional demands to be the idea of life, and its most significant meaning. When I finally managed to extricate myself from the city and its seductions I was finally able to re-connect with the broader world around me. I was finally able to listen and hear my own voice once the noise had died down. This is not to suggest that it was a better voice, but it was at least my own.
I thought of all this as I listened to David Foster Wallace’s famous This Is Water speech. I have quoted from this speech before, and one of my favorite sections is this:
Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship… is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things…then you will never have enough…Worship your own body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly, and when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you….Worship power – you will feel weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to keep the fear at bay. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart – you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.…And the world will not discourage you from [this form of worship], because the world of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self. Our own present culture has harnessed these forces in ways that have yielded extraordinary wealth and comfort and personal freedom. The freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation
It has been transformed into a short movie here and is worth listening to again for no other reason than to remind ourselves that so much of our life is spent simply drowning under the banal, the unthinking. and simply losing sight of what really matters, what to pay attention to….and what to choose. For life lived in the commotion of a city is a life lived without making choices that matter, and paying attention to the things that matter. It was Wallace’s desperate plea to a younger generation to open its eyes, to see that each day, at each moment, we are called to make choices or to remain unthinking and hence remain unconscious, and convinced that you – the individual, are the center of the world, and then think no more beyond that. That life takes will and effort, and if you are aware, you can see this banality in a new way, and find new possibilities. It takes work, its not easy, but it is in the end a choice we must make. I am not sure I ever found my new possibilities, but I do remember that I tried to pay greater attention to the water around me. I want to believe – as any creation of a myth requires, that I did at least manage to extricate myself from what was not the life I wanted to live. I did change things. I can’t say for the better, but certainly for the more individual and chosen.
I was reminded of all this as I watched this video – I had previously only read the text. So I share it with you here.