Donut Age: America's Donut Magazine

Anatomy of a derail

Here's a how you lose the better part of a day:

You're about to settle down to work, but you glance at Twitter and see someone has approvingly retweeted a link to something called On Being a Happy Person. Being of a certain mental disposition, you are are naturally curious to find out the secret to happiness. So you click on the link and read a short post that begins:

No irony. No satire. No subterfuge or illusion.
Accept. That’s the first thing. Accept all conditions as they are, or seek within reason to change them, being mindful of the outcome on yourself and others.

And you immediately bristle. Because this is sounding like the same kind of ‘inspirational’ nonsense that the yoga instructor reads during shavasana, which always sets your teeth on edge (and is maybe one of the reasons why you've been finding excuses to skip class for the last couple of months). It's not so much that you disagree with the message in principle (you've read a little bit about Buddhism and you sort of get the bit about ‘grasping’ and ‘attachment’); it's that in a world that is so demonstrably and monstrously unjust, in a culture in which there are large groups of people dedicated to demeaning and and dehumanizing other large groups of people, advocating a philosophy of ‘acceptance’ seems at best naïve and at worst complicit.

(Just to be clear, I am tracing a thought process—my thought process—here, not critiquing that particular blog post, which also says some things that I fully endorse. Love as much as possible is a good, if surprisingly challenging, edict. Anyway, back to the derail.)

The bit about No subterfuge tickles a memory: something you read, something about, maybe, ‘guile’ being a defense or a weapon? You do a little googling, but it's not turning up anything. You pull out your well-thumbed Harper Perennial Library edition of The Crying of Lot 49, because you think you remember a bit about the Tristero that might fit the bill, and in any case, whenever you're trying to place a half-remembered quote about resistance and alienation, there's a better than even chance it'll be something of Pynchon's. Eventually, after the inevitable lingering over various other beloved but irrelevant passages, you stumble on something on page 174: Their [the Tristero's] entire emphasis now toward silence, impersonation, opposition masquerading as allegiance.

Almost right. The phrase silence, impersonation, opposition captures some of the sentiment you were thinking of, but you can tell it's not the passage you were trying to remember. So you go back to Google using the Pynchon phrase as your starting point, and that leads you to, of all places, the Google Books edition of The Selected Essays of Gore Vidal, specifically the essay American Plastic, in the midst of which, Vidal quotes the Pynchon passage and off-handedly remarks, Well, Joyce, also chose exile, cunning, silence, but eschewed allegiance's mask.

The Joyce reference rings a bell, but you can't recall the exact context, so you do a new search, using the terms exile, cunning, silence. That scores you multiple hits citing this passage from A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man:

I will tell you what I will do and what I will not do. I will not serve that in which I no longer believe, whether it call itself my home, my fatherland, or my church: and I will try to express myself in some mode of life or art as freely as I can and as wholly as I can, using for my defence the only arms I allow myself to use — silence, exile and cunning.
( Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man )

Aha! That's what you were looking for. A statement in favor of resistance rather than acceptance, and an acknowledgement that sometimes the only tools of resistance available are refusal (silence), retreat (exile), and subterfuge (cunning). You congratulate yourself on your (hypothetical) rebuttal of a straw man argument you extrapolated from a blog post by someone you don't even know.

But you are not done yet because all this talk of exile and resistance to authority gets you thinking of Pynchon again. This time, it doesn't take long to find the passage; it's one that you come back to over and over (and which even shows up sometimes as a tagline on your blog), Oedipa musing on the invisible, WASTE-connected network of undergrounds and outcasts she finds (or imagines) during her nighttime wandering of San Francisco:

It was not an act of treason, nor possibly even of defiance. But it was a calculated withdrawal, from the life of the Republic, from its machinery. Whatever else was being denied them out of hate, indifference to the power of their vote, loopholes, simple ignorance, this withdrawal was their own, unpublicized, private.
( Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49 )

By now you've soaked up enough literary alienation to embitter even the happiest of mortals, so there's nothing left to do but vomit it all back into the world in a series of elliptical tweets, and then to spend the rest of your evening composing a meandering blog post about the whole experience.

Congratulations, you've squandered yet another irreplaceable day of your finite existence!