You’re going to want to see these numbers this morning: I'm feeling good, and I hope you are, too.
Subjects discussed: Midterm anxiety, political emails, fear of death, Twitter, Jose Emilio Pacheco, The Savage Detectives
During the summer after my freshman year of college, I became convinced I was going to die at any moment. My father had passed earlier that year from a surprise heart attack, and I had started smoking pot in a hysterically misguided attempt to introduce some psychic levity into my life, and so every minor throb of pain attendant to the daily experience of being alive now seemed like a portent of imminent collapse. I’d feel my chest twitch, my arm tighten, and think “This is it, a lifetime of eating Taco Bell finally catches up to me.” Never mind the fact that I was a perfectly healthy 19-year-old with no dire medical history — one time I went to sleep so woozy with fear that I legitimately believed I would not wake up, that an aneurysm would strike me dead in the middle of the night and my mother would discover me cold and motionless in bed. This was not logical, but logic doesn’t enter when you’re sad and incapable of articulating that sadness. I don’t say this to invite sympathy, just to describe how it was. Months into this cycle, I worked up the will to see a doctor, where I described my symptoms, gave blood, and took an echocardiogram. A week later he informed me that all my readings were fine, that my bloodwork was fine, and given what I’d described about my father and my fear I was probably just very stressed, which would explain the heart palpitations and wrist pains. Immediately I felt better about it, at least physically, though I did feel the shame of knowing you could’ve saved yourself a lot of grief had you sucked it up a bit earlier.
The memory of all this came to me a few weeks ago, when I found myself experiencing a persistent and uncomfortable tightness in my chest and arm, which tended to accompany the same experience: reading about the 2022 upcoming midterms on the internet, whether Twitter or 538 or the New York Times. It’s hard to remember, but the entire political apparatus seemed unified in its belief that the Democrats were headed for a historic wipeout. The Republicans would sweep the House, claw back the Senate, install election deniers as the governors of Arizona, Pennsylvania, and even New York, and swiftly move to squeeze the last remaining dregs of democracy and hope out of this ailing, fucked up country. I’d check my email for work stuff, and be greeted by 17 new e-mails bearing headlines like “This is really, really bad news, Jeremy” that were somehow meant to motivate me to donate money to three different school board candidates in a state where I don’t live. I’m not an automaton, or dispassionate about contemporary reality; I’m a fucking baby, which I’ve never denied, and so all of this freaked me out. I’d get up in the middle of the night to pee, and start entertaining dire shit like “what if Charlie Kirk gets the last laugh?” before I could walk back to bed. Shortly thereafter the chest pains started and I decided something had to change, there was no way I could spend every two years in this frazzled state.
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It wasn’t just the idea of a Republican sweep that bugged me out, or the thought of waking up the morning after Election Day to find every right-wing and centrist asshole doing their best “I told you so” jig across the national media, but the inevitability of it all, compared with my own minor status in life. I know that phone banking and canvassing and donating are no joke, but every day I was bombarded with some new factoid about some other screwed-up political dynamic unfolding in a place I’d never been, and feel this overwhelming sense of helplessness. Like, what the fuck am I supposed to do about Idaho, or Alaska, or North Carolina? I’ve always tried to be well-informed but you can take in too much information with no real way to sort it out, so that every new piece just ends up feeding whatever thesis is lodged in your head, which for me was: Shit, Shit, Jesus Christ. All of a sudden, the doctor’s advice came back to me: I was stressed, and it was doing something to me I had to figure out. So I logged out of Twitter, stopped all news notifications on my phone, announced to my friends that I was taking a momentary sabbatical from by-the-hour updates and going to sleep before the results came in. The chest pains actually did subside, and then the results weren’t as bad as I feared, so one upside is that I’m not thinking about Charlie Kirk when I get up in the middle of the night.
Another is that I had to confront, finally, how modern consumption was affecting the way I interface with the world. Particularly, one place where I do a lot of consuming. As Twitter potentially sundowns into something unrecognizable and unusable, I and many others have had to grapple with an annoying line of logic: What would it mean for me if Twitter ended? I hate thinking about this, because it’s such a banal and unnecessary thing to consider in light of everything else going on, but I can’t pretend it’s irrelevant: I’m a writer, and I exist on Twitter, and so there could be real professional and personal ramifications if I suddenly lose this tiny thing I’ve got going for me. The thought I’ve been trying to lean into is: “Okay, well, so what?” Nothing more to it. There’s worse fates in life, obviously, and I do not intend to spend my limited time on Earth worrying about social media platforms. Much has been made about the need to move to Instagram or TikTok or Substack (where I write this, ironically, but rest assured I will never charge you, that’s my ironclad promise I etch in blood), and my answer is “no thanks.” I’ve already wasted enough time on one site, and I don’t want to post my face, or myself talking, or write for zero money more than I already do.
It could be good for writing if we all pulled back, maybe. If we all stopped taking in such relentless quantities of the world, and considered ourselves informed or incisive about any particular thing. If we all disavowed ourselves of the belief that a public life can communicate anything necessary about yourself. If we all rejected the urge to relentlessly memorialize ourselves, in order to feel less alone. I’m playing hard and fast with the royal “we,” forgive me. It’s the eternal push and pull — to write or not, to chronicle the moment or embrace the void — and for me and many others, Twitter has been one place to indulge one’s lesser thoughts and impulses. I don’t think tweeting has anything to do with literature, but I’ve encountered no shortage of profound and hysterical thoughts on the site, thoughts that return to me much more easily than some books. Maybe too many, actually, and it would serve us all (or at least me) if it disappeared sooner rather than later, so that we might have to adopt a new style of thinking rather than the confrontational virality encouraged by millions of people jockeying for the same public real estate. I like posting, so more likely is that Twitter soldiers on and we stay there until the bitter end — I’m a realist and a romantic — but still, just sitting with the idea of “what if it all goes away” has been freeing, something liberating rather than panic-inducing. (And obviously I am just talking about my own little sphere of Twitter, not the useful public utilities it would be a shame to lose, like the ability to figure out when the MTA is coming or if a hurricane is going to hit you.)
One of my ongoing fixations is how the dearth of translated writing in the English-speaking world has led to a dire skewing of what literature is viewed as worthy or canonical. I’m not the first to say it, but it’s really astonishing how many times I’ve come across a piece of writing that feels like the best thing I’ve ever read, and the author bio is like: “T—— has won every major literary award in Poland, and was recently honored with a bronze statue in Warsaw. This is her first work available in translation.” Most recently it was Jose Emilio Pacheco, one of Mexico’s most storied 20th century writers and someone who just has one book available in English — the novella Battles in the Desert, which I downed in one shot — who made me think about this. It’s relieving, I think, to ponder all of the amazing writing that nobody you know is ever going to give a shit about. A means of feeling less defeated by the market, which is itself ultimately defeated by the march of time. The opening lines of Battles in the Desert: “I remember—I don’t remember: what year was that?” That’s Pacheco in 1981, reflecting on 1940s Mexico, a place I will never visit but which is thankfully revived for me nearly a century later through this evocative, melancholy recollection of the way Mexico City used to be before people with money decided it should be different. Thank you, New Directions; it’s enough to make you want to sign up for Duolingo.
Lately I’ve been rereading Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives for maybe the sixth time in my life, which I no longer have any capacity to self-awarely joke about. I’m a Bolaño boy, it is what it is. The Savage Detectives is all about the forgotten writers, the ones claimed by death and the decades and irrelevance and the translation barrier and every other factor that consigns the majority of culture to history’s dustbin. Impossible to understate how much it improved my mood, reading it again; it’s Bolaño’s tribute to the writers in his own life, the ones who were never translated or even published. Some of the forgotten writers feel, by now, like old friends; others are popping out for the first time. Already I’ve picked up the four or five instances where Pacheco is mentioned in passing, something that never stuck out on previous reads. I remember that much, at least. I suppose I don’t want to be forgotten, but I know that posting has nothing to do with it. The world takes place, no matter how much or how little you know about it.
This is a way of announcing that I’d like to start posting to Substack more often, which I said last year and then immediately abandoned once the platform fell prey to all the culture war debates about platforming and Matt Taibbi and whatever else. Hugely embarrassing for the people who run the company, so now that its commercial fortunes have waned a bit I feel a bit more relaxed about coming back. Blogging was great, I’d much rather close-read a Bruce Springsteen concert video than post another photo of my face.
Recent professional work worth mentioning:
Initially when I started using Substack I thought that I might append some “behind the scenes” commentary to these clips, though that quickly struck me as a bad idea to do it in public for free. But I’ll talk about it if you ask me nicely.
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