The End of the Pleasure Bar

To be all meat and raw nerve is to exist outside of time and – momentarily – outside of narrative. The crackhead who’s been pushing the Pleasure button for sixty hours straight, the salesman who’s eating breakfast, lunch, and dinner while glued to a video-poker terminal, the recreational eater who is halfway through a half gallon of chocolate ice cream, the grad student who’s been hunched over his internet portal, pants down, since 8 o’clock last night, and the gay clubber who’s spending a long weekend doing cocktails of Viagra and crystal meth will all report to you ( if you can manage to get their attention) that nothing besides the brain and its stimulants has any reality. To the person who’s compulsively self-stimulating, both the big narratives of Salvation and Transcendence and the tiny life-storylets of “I hate my neighbor” or “It might be nice to visit Spain sometime” are equally illusory and irrelevant. This deep nihilism of the body is obviously a worry to the crackhead’s three young children, to the salesman’s employer, to the ice-cream eater’s husband, to the grad student’s girlfriend, and to the clubber’s virologist. But the person whose very identity is threatened by such abject materialism is the fiction writer, whose life and business is to believe in narrative…

For Dostoyevsky – as for such latter-day literary heirs of his as Denis Johnson, David Foster Wallace, Irvine Welsh, and Michel Houellebecq – the impossibility of pressing the Pleasure bar forever, the inevitable breaking of some bleak and remorse-filled dawn, is the flaw in nihilism through which humane narrative can slip and reassert itself. The end of the binge is the beginning of the story.

– Jonathan Franzen, The End of the Binge, from Father Away, pp. 279-282

Humanity doesn’t shine through until we realize we can’t hit the pleasure bar forever.

Intimacy and Being Yourself

I recently picked up a copy of a collection of essays by Jonathan Franzen called Farther Away. The book includes his eulogy of David Foster Wallace. That particular essay can be found online for free HERE.

I am a fan of David Foster Wallace and continue to learn things not only from him, but from his life. This eulogy paints the picture of a man who was consumed by his need to control his life (especially the way he was perceived by others). From this, and discussions with a friend about it, I had a few thoughts.

When dealing with yourself and the idea of presenting yourself to others as you actually are, you have essentially four choices:

  1. Either you will be relentlessly controlling and either withdraw from others or be highly selective in what you reveal about yourself, or
  2. You will learn to fake it and become what others want you to be, or
  3. You will attempt to be yourself and find that this is paralyzing or crushing (that’s what happened to Wallace in some sense), or
  4. You will learn to say with the Apostle Paul, “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain.”

I pray that I will learn to put number four into practice. Here’s the relevant quote from Franzen, but I’d encourage you to check out the whole thing.

People who like to be in control of things can have a hard time with intimacy. Intimacy is anarchic and mutual and definitionally incompatible with control. You seek to control things because you’re afraid, and about five years ago, very noticeably, Dave stopped being so afraid. Part of this came of having settled into a good, stable situation here at Pomona. Another really huge part of it was his finally meeting a woman who was right for him and, for the first time, opened up the possibility of his having a fuller and less rigidly structured life. I noticed, when we spoke on the phone, that he’d begun to tell me he loved me, and I suddenly felt, on my side, that I didn’t have to work so hard to make him laugh or to prove that I was smart. Karen and I managed to get him to Italy for a week, and instead of spending his days in his hotel room, watching TV, as he might have done a few years earlier, he was having lunch on the terrace and eating octupus and trudging along to dinner parties in the evening and actually enjoying hanging out with other writers casually. He surprised everyone, and maybe most of all himself. Here was a genuinely fun thing he might well have done again.

About a year later, he decided to get himself off the medication that had lent stability to his life for more than twenty years. Again, there are a lot of different stories about why exactly he decided to this. But one thing he made very clear to me, when we talked about it, was that he wanted a chance at a more ordinary life, with less freakish control and more ordinary pleasure…

So the year was up and down, and he had a crisis in June, and a very hard summer. When I saw him in July he was skinny again, like the late adolescent he’d been during his first big crisis. One of the last times I talked to him after that, in August, on the phone, he asked me to tell him a story of how things would get better. I repeated back to him a lot of what he’d been saying to me in our conversations over the previous year. I said he was in a terrible and dangerous place because he was to trying to make real changes as a person and as a writer. I said that the last time he’d been through near-death experiences, he’d emerged and written, very quickly, a book that was light-years beyond what he’d been doing before his collapse. I said he was a stubborn control freak and know-it-all— “So are you!” he shot back at me— and I said that people like us are so afraid to relinquish control that sometimes the only way we can force ourselves to open up and change is to bring ourselves to an access of misery and the brink of self-destruction. I said he’d undertaken his change in medication because he wanted to grow up and have a better life. I said I thought his best writing was ahead of him. And he said: “I like that story. Could you do me a favor and call me up every four or five days and tell me another story like it?”…