“Look, obviously I can’t give you any advice, as much as I know you wish I could. I really can’t advise you, Elie, sad to say. For one thing, it’s easy for me to say anything, I’m dead,” said the skeleton of my father, gesticulating at the gravestones around him. “For another, you would never take my advice when I was alive. You recall…”
Yeah, one of the few times you really showed vulnerability. You almost sniffed as you complained that my sister and I had never asked your advice about anything. We were standing outside the kitchen, you had your back to the living room.
“Well, that’s true, Elie, and it hurt like hell that my children never once came to me for advice,” the skeleton said. Then he waited.
No idea what you’re waiting for. Do you think something is going to change about that truth? Do you want me to lay out a few of the best reasons we never came to you for advice? Do you remember how amused you were by that lawsuit filed by some litigious college graduates, around 1970? You read an excerpt of the NY Times article to us at the dinner table, or quoted it, maybe. You probably told us the story then got the article to read the judge’s remarks.
“Yeah, the judge in that case was great. The graduates had sued the university to get their tuition back because the college had not imparted wisdom, good character and enlightenment to them. They styled their suit as a breach of contract, I think. The judge reamed those snot-noses a few new assholes, and his language was beautiful. Yeah, that’s apropos of what we’re talking about, I suppose.
“We are not guaranteed wisdom, long life, happiness, sexual satisfaction, jack shit, really. There is luck, and genetics, work, connections, lack of connections, fairness, nepotism, who you know, who you blow, blah blah blah, this list of almost random factors is as long as your list of complaints against the merciless status quo.
“There are countless myths about reinventing yourself, the triumph of the determined will, people who rose from obscurity to become the biggest, most powerful and overbearing assholes who’ve ever lived, myths enough to make you vomit. We have the American Exceptionalist myth of the lone brave man with the gun seeking his fortune in the wild west, killing whoever desperately needed a’killing, and ending up fantastically rich and powerful.
“These are mainly myths about materialism and glory as the only cures for what ails a person, simple myths for people who naively believe that a limitless supply of money, or the esteem of a million strangers, is the end of all human troubles. You know where the real pay-off is, I’ll say that for you, Elie, and you keep going for it. I have to give you that. That desire of yours to get to the bottom of things is as much a blessing as a curse, I suppose, to see the glass half full, or as much of a curse as it is a blessing, to put it just as fairly, if more somberly.
“All this is beside the point really, I wanted to hammer home the point tonight that empathy is rare enough in this world, in this competitive, zero-sum society in particular, and empathy that leads to any kind of meaningful help is ten times as rare as the ordinary kind of rare empathy you can once in a while encounter. You see somebody in trouble, your impulse is to help, that’s a good thing– Kant called it the ‘categorical imperative’, that you could will your action become universal knowing categorically that it would make the world a better place. What’s Jeeves give you on that, Elie?”
Act according to the maxim that you would wish all other rational people to follow, as if it were a universal law.
“Yeah, so a decent impulse to help a guy struggling to wheel his wheelchair in the pouring rain– because anyone in his position would need the push and anyone walking and able to give the push should do it– should be the norm. It’s not, but we can agree that the world would be better if people did this simple thing, with no argument. Guy’s struggling in a wheelchair, it’s raining, you are in a pancho- push the guy to the nearest shelter from the rain. You’d want him to do it for you, it’s a good thing, better world if everyone did it.
“Hypotheticals are easy, of course. Real life– your friend suffers from severe depression. Hah, there goes your hypothetical. Life is complicated and few people acquire any real insight. Insight, we laugh about that now, don’t we, Elie? Your lifelong insight was that I was being a complete asshole when we fought, when I lashed out, using my well-honed adult skills to batter a boy. How much did that insight that I was wrong help you?
“Did it feel good when I admitted, the last night of my life, that I’d felt you reaching out all along, and that you’d been right and human to reach out to your father, and that I was entirely to blame for the long senseless war? I know it probably felt good at the time, but as I’ve been slimming down here, surrounded by the fertile upper Westchester earth, I’m sure that admission has taken on a more and more hollow tone.”
That’s a fair way to put it.
“Well, look, you’ve heard it over and over from every unhappy person you’ve ever known — lower your expectations and you will experience less disappointment. If you stop expecting the expression of true feelings from people there will be no sting when people are a bit false. This is kind of a cliche, you know, protect yourself from the cruelty of the world by expecting no less than cruelty. Hey– look, that person didn’t whip me in the face! My lucky day!
“The fact is, you are pissing uphill, Elie. It may be a better thing than pushing that giant boulder up the hill, as you were for several years with that idealistic educational workshop you developed, but you are still pissing uphill. What I mean to say is that nobody you know can offer you what you actually need the most. This is a sad reality of life, most worldly success comes from a lifetime of steadily making useful contacts with well-connected professionals.
“If I may digress for a moment, it’s hard for me to understand why you would post this draft in progress on-line in the first place. For another thing, if you persist in doing that, why not at least post a copyright notice with your actual name instead of the name of your late lamented cat Oinsketta? I suppose you put the posts on line in hopes of getting feedback, it’s a natural enough impulse, especially in this social media universe. Talk to our marketing people, Elie, and you will see the laughable folly of your approach.
“The point is, I applaud you in this effort. There are some fine pages here, and you do me an honor. You have already moved some hearts with a few of these stories. Do not expect anything from your readers. Seriously. For one thing, they have no fucking idea what these many pages are intended to add up to. How could they? These pages are a random jumble and bear no resemblance to a book. With a book, the first page either hooks you or you open another book. A book is a promise, made in an intriguing enough way that the reader invests the time to read it, a story that unfolds in a reasonable order.
“So don’t wait for anybody to tell you any of this is good, or important, or that it moved them or might make an interesting book some day, if you can get an agent, an editor, a publisher and all those other things lined up. It’s like poverty, Elie, that’s the best analogy I can give you. You can’t explain it to or talk about it satisfyingly with someone who has never tasted it directly. We can all agree it’s a horror, but unless you’ve actually lived it for any amount of time, it’s an abstract horror in the same unknowable category as many other terrible things.
“You’ve had a tiny taste of the enforced powerless of being, what used to be called, and still is by folks who lack the good breeding not to pronounce the entire banned word, ‘niggers’. I put the word in quotes because it’s a sickening word. I hear you say it all the time now when you wax tourettic out of frustration and it makes me cringe. I know you don’t say it because you’re a racist, but snarling the word ‘nigger’ because you’re being treated like one does nobody any good. I understand where it comes from, and I empathize more than you know. I also understand that the power of a hateful word comes from the hate it still conveys, and most of our old curses are completely fucked out as far as conveying real rage. ‘Nigger’ is the exact word for the sickening powerlessness you’re talking about, but it is also a sickening fucking word.
“But there’s the crux of the thing: until you are held totally powerless, treated with complete contempt, in a permanently galling situation where you have ‘no rights a white man is bound to respect’, in whoremaster Roger Taney’s immortal summation of the Founder Fathers’ original view of the Negro, you cannot truly empathize with somebody in that situation. Your friends can be sympathetic for the pain you express, but no eloquence on your part can enable them to truly understand, let alone actually empathize with, the death of a thousand cuts that is living 200% above the American poverty line. They can feel your pain, but only an abstract shadow of it.
“If the Wall Street casino doesn’t take another big hit in the next couple of years, you can eke out a few more years of subsistence. Personally, I think it’s stupid for multiple reasons for you to try to live like this — many fine writers held down jobs and wrote their asses off before and after work — but I get that you can’t work for anybody but Buddha, and he doesn’t pay anyway.
“The thing to keep in mind is that nobody you know can help you write this book. It may feel good that a reader tells you they liked this line, or that post, or were moved by such and such a story. I understand a writer needs a bit of that, any worker needs to have a little praise to motivate further good work. You had a link to that sisyphic work discussion, put it here, would you? Gracias, that’s a nice fellow.
“Most friends will wish you well, tell you a bit they liked, offer line edits, point out a phrase they think is not as elegant as it might be, express confusion about your larger plan, hazard a guess, support your idea, as basically incoherent as it still appears to be. The best you can hope for is the occasional attaboy, and it’s a shame, we can all agree, but– at the same time, a shame you just have to shut the fuck up about if you’re going to turn these ramblings into a book, you read me, Elie?”
Like a book, pops, like a book I can’t put down.