“Widget” Is a Name for Something Whose Name You Don’t Know
Editor-in-chief, Evergreen Review
Human beings, Freud tells us in Civilization and Its Discontents, are petty, vindictive, fragile, insatiable vacuums of suck. We want only to eat and to shit, to fuck and to kill. Life is nothing more than a vain attempt to fill our holes, and the biggest, deepest, most unfillable hole of all is the ego.
Truly, we’re ridiculous creatures. We endure one of the most protracted infancies of any long-lived animal and suffer through an attenuated adolescence during which we’re mostly helpless and often our own worst enemy. Even as adults we’re not particularly hardy. In the evolutionary game of rock-paper-scissors, we threw scissors every time. We traded strength for dexterity, sensory acuity for mental prowess. These attributes offer certain advantages over creatures we prey on (and others that prey upon us), but they’re calibrated to the group rather than the individual. Which is to say: strip away the clothes, the buildings, and the art and we’re deer. We’re bison. We’re herring. We sacrifice the very young and the very old, the sick and the outliers, so that the herd itself, the hive, may survive.
We’re bees, termites. Queens and drones, soldiers and drudges. The division of labor’s as old as live birth. From the first separation into hunters and gatherers have come all the farmers, factory workers, and cannon fodder that make modern life possible—all the barristas, graphic designers, hairdressers, flight attendants, personal injury attorneys, and publicists, all the coders, bricklayers, manicurists, genome sequencers, copy editors, prostitutes, craft beer brewers, bar and bat mitvah party wranglers and personal shoppers, all the comic book inkers, encyclopedia salesmen, guidance counselors, customs officials, rhythm guitarists, conspiracy theorists, whistle-blowers, porn stars, junk bond traders, game show hosts, lifestyle gurus, nail polish namers, relief pitchers, drug mules, cleaning ladies, CPAs, plastic surgeons, yoga teachers, televangelists, event planners, landscape architects, department store greeters and perfume spritzers, all the Steve Jobses and people who portray Steve Jobs in highly subjective biopics, all the people whose livelihood consists of convincing people on the other end of the phone that they give a shit about their problems, all the people who used to be Iris Murdoch scholars and then became Angela Carter scholars and thought they were going to become Jeanette Winterson scholars before scurrying back to Angela Carter and Iris Murdoch, and all the poor schmucks whose only job is to scrub the brake-pad filaments from your rims after your car rolls out of the car wash—yes, and all the artists, without whom we would be indistinguishable from the worms, and much less useful.
It’s a miracle that we exist, let alone that we dominate the planet. That we’re destroying the planet is an irony so monumentally improbable it all but obscures the tragedy that is the case. For, working together, consciously or unconconsiously, willingly or not, we’ve made something that no individual could have made: something that’s not only incomprehensible to any one member of society, but incomprehensible to all of them. With each ever-more-specialized and interchangeable employment the individual becomes that much more irrelevant, a widget lost inside the edifice of civilization, which, like an ancient ziggurat, is little more than a polished facade built around a vast mountain of rubble.
But strip away the bells and whistles, the split-level ranches and sampled beats, the merkins and low-riders, the gouaches and bindis and platform wedges and monkey-brain soup, and you remember that civilization has one goal, and one goal only: to keep us alive. And it achieves this goal. Spectacularly, preeminently, perhaps even singularly. For all our discontents, this impossible apparatus—this perpetual motion machine, this clockwork cloud—inarguably does its job, as evidenced by the 7,429,000,000 people who daily compact the earth beneath their fourteen billion shuffling feet, making the world slightly smaller, but more solid too, or at any rate more suitable for human passage.
But despite the vast number of people who tread this path, their march has a single, counterintuitive destination. “The goal of all life is death,” Freud tells us bluntly in Beyond the Pleasure Principle. A cell performs its task, then self-destructs. An organism reproduces and thereupon goes into decline, its ultimate demise often coming at the hands of its own offspring. Charlotte didn’t merely die after she laid those eggs. She died because she laid them, so that her hatchlings could feast on the pulp of her body.
To the best of my knowledge Freud never linked these two paradigms, or if he did it was only to say that civilization is the closest thing we have to an antidote to Todestrieb, the death drive. Who knows, maybe he came to this conclusion because he wrote Civilization and Its Discontents a decade after Beyond the Pleasure Principle. But I read Discontents first and Beyond second, and I’ve always seen the relationship differently. Civilization isn’t the counter to the death drive. It is, rather, a product of it, its corporeal manifestation, its alembic. For if civilization’s function is to serve the needs of the living, and if life tends toward apoptosis, then it seems only logical to conclude that civilization will only fulfill its function when it has killed all its consituents. Call it death-by-too-much-life: like lemmings and locusts, we eat and breed and build and breed and shit and breed until there’s nothing left to eat and nothing left to build from and the earth has been so poisoned by our shit nothing new will grow. And then we die.
The evidence is all around us. Though we conceal it beneath the veneer of molecular gastronomy and the varnish of designer babies and the what-the-fuck? of $6000 toilets, we have made ourselves slaves to an immeasurably vast and irresistible social machine. We have done this because we built the machine ourselves—built it, we told ourselves, to keep ourselves alive—but all along the machine has been tending toward its own destruction, and ours as well, because the machine is us. As a mirror of its creators, our greatest creation can do nothing but kill us all.
And this isn’t a flaw in the program, but its very purpose. The impulses we suppress in order to remain members of civil society turn out to be civilization’s driving forces. Insatiable hunger. Unquenchable lust. Bottomless rage. Above all, the groundless belief that we’re more than the flesh that clothes us, when it seems closer to the truth that we inhabit our bodies as New Yorkers occupy their leased apartments, forking over not just our time but our principles to make rent, even as the landlord lets the floors warp and the pipes rust and the bricks crumble in a transparent effort to shuffle us out so that he can halve the space, double the rent, and usher the next sucker in.
All this by way of saying: most literary journals bore me. Most literary fiction bores me. Most literary nonfiction bores me. Most poetry…
::shaking his head::
Let us divide cultural production into two categories: entertainment and art. Let us say that entertainment is a relief valve accomodating us to the process I just described, whereas art is its driving force.
By which I mean: art is what’s leading us to our death.
Because art, as I wrote in Hatchet Jobs, is the engine of history. Advertising sells a product or a lifestyle, but art sells life—not just the how of existence, but the what of it.
What about God? you say. Religion? But God’s an illusion, and artists are the perpetrators of the hoax. And anyway, what religion doesn’t find apotheosis in apocalypse?
Art tells people how to be. It laments its absence from the world and wills itself into being at the expense of what’s already there. The visions artists deliver, in song, in image, in narrative, in rhythm, these are the spurs that drive generals and scientists and capitalists to their great and terrible deeds. Yes, and that inspire soldiers and students and consumers to follow them. The mightiest king and most miserable peasant are slaves to the artist’s imagination. Never doubt that power, and never doubt artists’ complicity in its abuse.
Yet we persist in the idea that art is our salvation.
I persist in the idea that art is our salvation.
To want anything less from art is to want something that is not art, but a kind of mental jewelry whose high polish accentuates its gaudy irrelevance.
In order to hold on to what is probably nothing more than my own necessary illusion I have had to perform a bit of mental gymnastics. Art, after all, is undeniably a cultural expression, and culture is synonymous with civilization. It would seem then that art, like farming, like ICBMs, like the pizza saver–cum–Malibu Barbie beach house coffee table, has as its ultimate goal the destruction of humanity. Certainly the novels of Jonathan Franzen and the paintings of Elizabeth Peyton and the films of Christopher Nolan fit into this category.
Yet I want to posit that this chasing after death conceals a deeper impulse. A truer impulse, or at any rate a more salubrious one, which is the exposure of this very process. This unmasking is rarely rational, let alone literal. Thanatos/Todestrieb is so deeply embedded in our psyches, and the assumptions that inform it are so counterintuitive to what we think of as art’s function, as civilization’s, that we absorb most apocalyptic pronouncements with a self-protective cognitive dissonance that denies the significance of what we’re being told even as it quantifies it in numbers and charts and projections.
This denial finds its most powerful enabler in the most unlikely of places. Almost half a century ago, Susan Sontag told us that “interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art.” But like Freud, Sontag was only describing the tip of the iceberg. Hermeneutics is art’s enemy, but it’s also a by-product of the institutions of art, which in the literary realm means the publishing industry and the academy: the publicity circuit, the conferences, the cult of the author, and yes, the literary magazines (like this one). The problem with most literary magazines, though, isn’t the stories, essays, and poems in them. It’s what surrounds the stories, essays, and poems. Okay, no, it’s usually the stories, essays, and poems; but even when the work’s good the context in which it’s presented is designed to blunt its impact. A magazine’s job is to sell itself and the products on its pages—to turn readers into consumers. To subsume art into a bourgeois commodity, as if art were somehow fungible rather than the last pure intangible. It’s hard to seriously consider the implications of a story about [INSERT TRAGEDY/CATASTROPHE] when it’s bracketed by an article about [INSERT DISPOSABLE CONSUMER PRODUCT] and an ad for [INSERT STATUS GOOD].
What if the discontents Freud described spring not from the suppression of our so-called natural urges? What if they were actually a protest against the true nature of the suicide machine to which we’ve strapped ourselves? What if the life we yearn for is not, in fact, an unfettered animalism but an enlightened animism, an integration of our unique capacity for symbolic thought into the world that’s not just our home but in some fundamental way ourselves?
What if art could point out the ways in which culture alienates us from ourselves, from the truth—could maybe even reveal our true nature to us, rather than immerse it in the flow of cutlure? What if art could expose the self-destructive nature of civilization rather than succumb to it?
I believe that not only does this impulse exist, but that it’s art’s true, indeed defining, purpose. It’s always there, but has to fight to make itself heard above the din of million-dollar advances and Nobel prizes and Twitter followers, to stand out from the banner ads and listicles and requests to renew your subscription at an unbeatable savings or donate to support the best writing ever anywhere in the history of words! And of late we’re losing that fight. It may be that it’s a fight we can only lose, and lose again, and lose over and over again, but life itself is a fight we’re destined to lose, and still we hold on to it for as long as possible.
(And let’s not let writers off the hook. Because let’s face it, most writers write things to sound like writers—they employ literary tropes and techniques not to reveal truth but to conceal it in the proverbial spoonful of sugar, in the mistaken belief that this makes the truth more palatable, when all it makes it is a spoonful of sugar.)
In Hatchet Jobs I said that most contemporary writing could be categorized as either recidivist postmodernism or reactionary realism, and I stand by that assertion. Nevertheless it’s probably more telling to say that literature, like visual art, has succumbed to the judgment of the marketplace. I have nothing against popularity, which is just another word for a whole lot of readers: readers are why we publish our work rather than hide it in a drawer. But more and more writing is produced in the name of mercantile approval, and the market, though composed of readers, is not the same things as readers. The market directs readers to read not as individuals but as members of a group and to regard books not as individual texts but as selections from, representations of, a genre. More insidiously, it directs writers to pitch their books to the genre rather than to the needs of its subject. A book that strives for popularity in the name of universality isn’t joining the ranks of art but, rather, the political order, and thus, as Chomsky has pointed out time and again, its masters will always be money and power, not truth, not morality. When a so-called literature of resistance can only point out the obvious, when it doesn’t rise to the level of action, then it becomes nothing more than an analgesic to the oppressed rather than an irritant to the oppressors, let alone an agent of change. It becomes soporific. It becomes accommodationist. It becomes complicit. And so do its readers.
This isn’t the work I want to publish in Evergreen.
I want to publish the essay whose effect isn’t catharsis or even information, but anger and action. The essay that describes the world as it actually is and not as the writer would have it be.
I want the poem whose goal is its own irrelevance. Not the irrelevant poem, because god knows we have enough of them, but the poem whose expression is so singular that, once said, it can never be said again.
I want the story you’re ashamed to show another person. The story that exposes your pettiness, your failure, your traitorous nature. The story that doesn’t look like a story, not because its form is “strange” or its content “offensive,” but because its focus looks past the carapace of consciousness, which is little more than a reflection of culture, to the core of what makes us human.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not shilling for some kind of warmed-over Brahmanic renunciation. We are, in the most literal sense, worldy creatures. The phenomenon we call the self is an amalgam of a unique and irreplaceable biological entity with 150,000 years of human cultural production. But the sheer mass of that culture overwhelms the mental organ that houses it, sweeping us toward annihilation. Only art can make us conscious of that process. Only art can enable us to resist it.
But it can only do this if we let it, and by “we” I mean not just you but me, in my capacity as Evergreen’s editor. I don’t want to get in the way of readers’ experiences of the words that show up in these pages, let alone presume that my take on a text has more authority than any other reader’s—even if the text in question was written by me. I don’t want to publish the “best” story or the “most intimate” essay or the “most shocking” interview. The only claims I want Evergreen to make are those its stories make on its readers.
There’s a famous paradox attributed to the physicist Enrico Fermi. Based on what we know about the universe, Fermi said, its vastness, its order, there’s a very high probablity that the same processes that produced life on earth should have occurred on innumerable other planets. At least some of those species, Fermi went on to argue, should have been made known to us long ago. And yet there’s been nothing. No flying saucers, no little green men, no interstellar Morse code glimpsed through Hubble’s sleepless eye. Why?
Astronomers and philosophers and more than a few novelists have proposed various answers to this question, but when you set aside the idea that we don’t actually understand how the universe works—a large caveat, I admit—and various improbable solutions, then you come back to one answer over and over again: that it’s the nature of intelligent life to destroy itself. That, far from being empty, the universe is filled with the ghosts of untold billions of species who blew themselves up or developed a biological agent that wiped them out or simply ate and fucked and shat themselves to death.
It’s ironic that the man who posed this paradox should have devoted much of his life to creating one of the most efficient means to our extinction, but hardly surprising. Nor is it lost on me that in my desire to shake people out of their torpor I may well end up creating lullabies that croon my readers toward oblivion.
Barney Rosset was once asked why he started Evergreen. His only answer was that “somehow there seemed to be a need.” Beyond that, he said, “you can’t specify” “the basic purpose” of an enterprise of such amorphous but far-reaching ambition. “When you do that,” he said, “you’ve lost the game already.” I hope to run Evergreen 3.0 according to the same flexible ethos, but if I were forced to say why I wanted to edit a magazine that will suck up what little free time I possess, cost me more money than it will ever bring in, and almost certainly alienate me from the publishing industry even more than I already am, only one answer springs to mind:
I want to beat the odds.