Against Everything: On Dishonest Times by Mark Greif (Pt. 5) — Thom Cuell and Tomoé Hill

Hi Thom,

Up until now, I’ve more or less agreed with Greif without feeling he was writing from a deliberately contrarian position. On reading the “Experience” sections, I’m not so sure. I wrote and rewrote a response to the “Gut-Level Redistribution …” part, then in the end, decided to delete it. Why? Not out of cowardice, I think it became intensely frustrating to want to argue in a contrarian manner (to that) knowing that I believed fully in theory with a lot of what he was saying, but feeling very strongly with one part at least that in practice, it could almost certainly never work, presented as a broad stroke solution that didn’t take into account at all human nature and the impossibly connected systems—of everything that is in place, from government to banking and law. To say A (total income) should have a ceiling of X ($100K) and explaining that as good because it is predicated on an assumption that it is a morally acceptable amount—that implies no one can be trusted to act in the ‘right’ manner if given the opportunity to exceed X—is dangerous. Logically, looking at your damaged system(s), you will find there is another thing to fix, and another, etc. after changing X, because the ceiling automatically means you won’t be able to do (or severely limits/complicates) B, C, D … so what’s the solution? It’s more that gut-level, I’m afraid. And is it viable, tearing down the system in its entirety to create a new one which doesn’t seem to take into account globalisation, technology and most importantly, its impact on a deep-rooted mentality on how one’s way of life should be/could be—how do you erase the bias of generations more or less immediately? One of the other suggestions linked to X by Greif being that the person in ultimate power gets 0, not even X, so as to keep them somehow politically pure. I can’t quite believe it’s as simplistic as that. While I agree that morality does seem to be seen, at least, as tied to money in a capitalist society, people who are truly morally corrupt know that power extends beyond money and look for means to take advantage in all possible ways. Do you think it’s the case that we’ve built ourselves a trap we can’t ever get out of, because of the necessity of setting aside personal interests/ambition to a large extent to create a new system?

Onto more fun things to argue: the first Experience section, “The Concept of Experience”. He was particularly gloomy in a way that at first I found myself nodding along with—you know, those occasional bursts of mood where you find yourself ruminating rather philosophically about why you aren’t doing this, or how come you can’t be more like that person. This sentence rang absolutely true to me: “[o]ur acceptable philosophy is eudaemonistic hedonism. It says: we act, and choose, and react, by an insatiable hunger for pleasure, and this is to be adjusted, very reasonably, by an educated taste for happiness.” He then goes on to break down the pressure of chasing experience that exists now, the paradox of the person doing so, even though it can be argued that true experience is born of spontaneity. This chasing results in a endless cycle of if not disappointment, then maybe something along the lines of restlessness—you’re not getting the best possible experience, must do better next time. Life, or trying to attain the perfect set of experiences, turns into an addiction. I’m certainly with him on that. Again, this is something exacerbated to a strong degree by social media: the attractiveness of other people’s lives, almost being assaulted by the sheer volume of experiences, it would take a very confident person to not be affected sometimes by a certain feeling that they could be doing more, doing better. Personally, I think you’ve got to try to shut it out as much as you can, or at least look at it in a detached manner. Yes, they look like they’re having a great life, but it could never be your life, because one set of experiences do not fit all. It’s not a negative, it should be seen as a positive. The more you covet, the less you’ll be satisfied.

I’ve always found interesting things happen when you just get on with the business of the everyday, while being observant of the world. The little things often have the greatest impact or lead to ‘big’ or formative experiences (although you rarely know it, except in retrospect).

I’ll speak very little of sex and experience, because I’m in the middle of writing something about the very subject(s): but I will state emphatically that ‘hooking up’, as he charmingly puts it, is absolutely a means of knowledge, and not just sexual.

Here’s where I found myself going, oh NO, however:

Truly dissatisfied persons, maybe more than anybody else, take a large proportion of their experience from books. Or they find they can double their own little experience, and make a second pass at the day-to-day, by writing it down. Poor scribblers! Such people are closest to a solution, and yet to everyone else they seem to be using up time, wasting life, as they spend fewer hours “living” than anyone, and gain less direct experience. Serious reading often starts from a deep frustration with living. Keeping a journal is a sure sign of the attempt to preserve experience by desperate measures. These poor dissatisfied people take photographs, make albums, keep souvenirs and scrapbooks. And still they always ask: “What have I done?”

Do you know many people that fit this definition? In my entire life, I’ve met one, just one, person who embodied this. An intelligent man, very well-read, that I went on a date with. I’d never met him in the flesh before, and while I was out with him, it slowly came out that he had had (by his own admission) very little ‘real’ experience. He aspired to the experiences he read about: specifically, the grander kind, as in Huysmans’ Des Esseintes character. But he was afraid of a lot of things (again, his words). And so rather than being hurt by life, by potential experiences, he chose not to experience at all, or very little. Without pitying, I found it incredibly sad: that someone was so paralysed by the myriad ‘what ifs’ of life, that they found it safer to simply adopt experience from a book. Thanks to social media, you can of course present yourself as a ‘real’ person made up of non-existent experiences. But once you are out in the real world, that façade crumbles quite fast. So I found myself in the rather odd position of having been attracted to someone who was in fact, made up. That attraction wore off not because he was made up, but because he was scared to experience.

But that example aside, I’ve not come across anyone like that, the way Greif describes. I think it’s important to note all of us could be prone to parts of that paragraph, in moments, or embody one particular part of it. That’s normal. We aren’t all either adrenaline-seeking daredevils or completely anti-social creatures as extremes. Nor do I find it true now, that the truly dissatisfied get their experience from books. It might have been true up until fairly recently. But I suspect again, that the internet has changed that. Remember Fahrenheit 451? How everyone has interactive tv, and the show basically calls upon the public to be the show—The Family—in turn? How Montag’s wife really doesn’t know how to exist outside of what happens on screen? Bradbury always was terribly farsighted in terms of society and technology.

If there is dissatisfaction with book readers, that’s probably because it’s a direct backlash to that kind of living. I can understand that. But he’s quite harsh with the idea of people who choose to preserve memories. And this coming from someone who isn’t really sentimental about photographs, and only once (unsuccessfully) kept a journal. It’s a natural thing for humans to want to keep a record of their life and who is in it, I think. When you can’t answer the meaning of life, or what your ultimate purpose is in it (leaving out religion), of course you want markers to remind yourself of what the worthwhile moments were. Just because I don’t have physical reminders means I don’t do it mentally. Is that much different? On the whole, I find avid book readers to be the best companions: there is a rich mix of seeking knowledge in books and also in life, and they find great pleasure in the connections of it and art. It becomes a way of seeing, of living, that brings great satisfaction, and helps counter what is, without doubt, a harsh world at times.

I think I’ll stop there, because you can see that I could clearly go on and on. We’ve covered so much, and yet it feels like at the same time, we haven’t gone through half this book. Greif’s essays are a rare thing these days: intelligently questioning life in a world that has changed faster than we might be able to live in it. How do we live, adapt in a world like that? Must we fundamentally change ourselves, or radically change the structure of society? At times he’s infuriated me, and at others, I agree completely. Which is exactly how I like it: to be challenged in my thoughts, and find myself presented with something that makes me question what I’ve believed up until now. Complacency in thought is what he is shaking up, without taking the cheap ‘extreme’ positions (contrarianism is by no means extremism), and a lot more people should be following his example.

greif

H Tomoe,

It looks like we’ve reached the dregs of the night, and we’re finally moving on to the Real Talk about the meaning of life, art, politics and everything. And, to be fair, the ‘gut-level redistribution’ does sound like the kind of thing you’d come up with at 3am. I’m in sympathy with his soixante-huitard, ‘demand the impossible’ mentality here, but this is an extremely simplistic suggestion. Primarily because, as you say, he treats the economy as a closed system. Maybe it’s is a particularly American mindset, but this would need to be an international shift, not one unique to the US. Mind you, as an old Trot, I would say that. I’m absolutely in favour of the universal basic income, and also the suggestion that the earnings of company owners should be pegged to the wages of the lowest-paid employees (by a multiple, of 12, or 24 or whatever), which I think are better developed versions of what he’s suggesting here?

This idea about the person at the top of the system getting no pay, to keep them pure, is bizarre as well. Does this not just ensure that only the already wealthy can possibly afford to govern? One of the Chartists’ demands was the MPs should be paid, precisely to avoid this situation. It’s a vexed question, though: the Labour government of 1997 was plainly overawed by the wealth of the people around them, and it made them oddly pliant. I think the acquisitiveness of the Blairs and Clintons, the way they became massively enriched following their time in office, has played a part in the rise of right-wing ‘anti-establishment’ politics. So yeah, paying nothing encourages the robber barons, and paying too much encourages the opportunistic and self-centred, but there’s a happy medium to be found.

Still, it’s easy to think that we’re in a trap we can’t get out of, and that the present situation is inevitable; no doubt the Romans, and feudal peasants felt the same. Population growth, climate change and technology will all have an impact; the dialectical wheels of history keep moving… It’s strange, in a way, that this idea of redistribution seems so utopian: it wasn’t that long ago that we had a 99% top-rate tax in Britain (which those free spirits The Beatles spent plenty of time complaining about). And yes, people did still invent things, and make art, and be lawyers. Bill Wyman fucked off into tax exile, but somehow we struggled on.

I was interested in the distinction Greif makes between property which you make you imprint upon (the car you drive, the clothes you wear, the bed you sleep in) and alienated wealth —investment properties you never visit, the bonds which accumulate capital without your input. This feeds into the essay on experience, and this idea of an almost capitalistic accumulation of experience; building up a bank of memories, without ever really imprinting yourself in the moment, or taking time to understand them. The opening of this made me think of the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which starts with physiological needs (food, shelter), moves up towards belongingness (friends, family), and has ‘wi-fi’ at the top. It’s a philosophy of life based very much in a Western belief system, and assuming a fairly comfortable standard of living as a starting point.

Greif’s comments about Flaubert and aestheticism made me think of the philosophy of dandyism, as best expressed by Quentin Crisp—the art of taking that which makes you unique, and making it the defining, undeniable core of your person: “swimming with the tide, but faster”, as he put it. The great thing is that this isn’t an elitist attitude, as it might seem. There’s a story he tells, which I’ve quoted before, about a gentleman of his acquaintance, whose name was Mr Tillet, but who was better known as The Angel. Crisp described the man as “shorter than I am, but twice as wide… his head was as long from the chin to the crown as the skull of a donkey. His pate was bald, but the rest of his body was covered with fur, right down to his fingernails. When his employer first saw him, she fainted”. Rather than seeing this as a disadvantage, he made a virtue of necessity and found a position in which his distinctive features could work in his favour, going on to make “more money in four short years as a wrestler than the divine Joe Louis made out of a lifetime in the boxing ring”. That’s the key to style: “he took that which made him so like himself, and put it in its appropriate setting”.

I think that a lot of the angst that many of us feel in our mid-twenties comes about when our inner vision of ourselves comes into conflict with our outward experience; we feel like we should start to change our lives, that we need to get careers, move in with partners, and so on.

I remember walking through Manchester on my way home from work, feeling like I was being sneered at by the punks and goths in Piccadilly Gardens and wishing I had some sort of visible means of displaying my subcultural identification. When you get a little bit older, maybe you figure out that it’s ok not to live with someone, to pursue your artistic interests, not to go to any fucking dinner parties…

Already thinking of dandyism, I was struck when Greif went on to mention Thoreau, and the concept of living deliberately, just because my introduction to dandyism came through the band Fosca, whose song “Live Deliberately” talks about finding your own niche like that:

Reclaim your own, that which was meant for us
It was meant for us
Writing songs for the well-read and the ill-fed
Writing songs for the waiflike and the WRAITHLIKE
And the Safely Unliked
Inviting the sort of license normally afforded
Only to children and fools…

On the point about book-reading, well… I do find that people in the literary world can be quite sheltered. You can get a reputation for being an outlaw if you leave a couple of buttons undone and do the odd line. But I agree that the passage you quote is a bit of a straw man. Clearly, reading and experience are complimentary activities. Again, there’s a book I refer back to often, Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson, which talks about a town where each inhabitant has become defined by one facet of their personality—he calls them ‘grotesques’. Someone who only experienced life through reading would be a grotesque, clearly, but equally so would be your full on YOLO adrenalin type. Either way, it’s very limiting.

Anyway, looking back, yes, I agree, Against Everything is more thoughtful and questioning than the title implies, and more satisfying for it. It never feels like a knee-jerk response to events, and you never feel provoked into gainsaying him. There’s an important thread running through these pieces: Greif has identified the way that neoliberal economic theory has crept into our understanding of the wider world (possibly why it seems so inescapable now, as you mentioned above), and he interrogates the results of this, for art and for our relationships. I wouldn’t say I’ve necessarily agreed with his interpretations, or even loved reading the essays themselves, but I’ve enjoyed discussing them—it throws up lots of interesting connections, synchronicities and digressions.


Mark Greif is a founder and Editor of the journal n+1. He lives and works in New York, where he is Associate Professor of Literary Studies at the New School. He is the highly acclaimed author of The Age of the Crisis of Man, and his criticism and journalism have appeared in publications including the London Review of Books, Guardian, Times Literary Supplement, and New Statesman.

In the kingdom of kitsch Thom Cuell would be a monster.

Tomoé Hill is an editor at minor literature[s]. Her reviews, essays, and non-fiction can also be found at Berfrois, 3:AM Magazine, and Numéro Cinq.

Image: Jewelled Tortoise Brooch, Saaleha Bamjee, Creative Commons

Against Everything is published by Verso. Author bio courtesy of the same.