PAIN WON’T KILL YOU
[commencement address, Kenyon College, May 2011]
Good morning, Class of 2011. Good morning, relatives and faculty. It’s a great honor and pleasure to be here today.
I’m going to go ahead and assume that you all knew what you were getting into when you chose a literary writer to deliver this address. I’m going to do what literary writers do, which is to talk about themselves, in the hope that my experience has some resonance with your own. I’d like to work my way around to the subject of love and its relation to my life and to the strange technocapitalist world that you guys are inheriting.
A couple of weeks ago, I replaced my three-year-old BlackBerry Pearl with a much more powerful BlackBerry Bold, with a five-megapixel camera and 3G capability. Needless to say, I was impressed with how far the technology had advanced in three years. Even when I didn’t have anybody to call or text or e-mail, I wanted to keep fondling my new Bold and experiencing the marvelous clarity of its screen, the silky action of its tiny track pad, the shocking speed of its responses, the beguiling elegance of its graphics. I was, in short, infatuated with my new device. I’d been similarly infatuated with my old device, of course; but over the years the bloom had faded from our relationship. I’d developed trust issues with my Pearl, accountability issues, compatibility issues, and even, toward the end, some doubts about my Pearl’s very sanity, until I’d finally had to admit to myself that I’d outgrown the relationship.
Do I need to point out that—absent some wild, anthropomorphizing projection in which my old BlackBerry felt sad about the waning of my love for it—our relationship was entirely one-sided? Let me point it out anyway. Let me further point out how ubiquitously the word sexy is used to describe late-model gadgets; and how the extremely cool things that we can do now with these gadgets—like impelling them to action by speaking incantations, or doing that spreading-the-fingers iPhone thing that makes images get bigger—would have looked, to people a hundred years ago, like a magician’s incantations, a magician’s hand gestures; and how, when we want to describe an erotic relationship that’s working perfectly, we speak, indeed, of magic. Let me toss out the idea that, according to the logic of technoconsumerism, in which markets discover and respond to what consumers most want, our technology has become extremely adept at creating products that correspond to our fantasy ideal of an erotic relationship, in which the beloved object asks for nothing and gives everything, instantly, and makes us feel all-powerful, and doesn’t throw terrible scenes when it’s replaced by an even sexier object and is consigned to a drawer: that (to speak more generally) the ultimate goal of technology, the telos of techne, is to replace a natural world that’s indifferent to our wishes—a world of hurricanes and hardships and breakable hearts; a world of resistance—with a world so responsive to our wishes as to be, effectively, a mere extension of the self. Let me suggest, finally, that the world of technoconsumerism is therefore troubled by real love, and that it has no choice but to trouble love in turn.
Its first line of defense is to commodify its enemy. You can all supply your own favorite, most nauseating examples of the commodification of love. Mine include the wedding industry, TV ads that feature cute young children or the giving of automobiles as Christmas presents, and the particularly grotesque equation of diamond jewelry with everlasting devotion. The message, in each case, is that if you love somebody you should buy stuff.
A related phenomenon is the ongoing transformation, courtesy of Facebook, of the verb to like from a state of mind to an action that you perform with your computer mouse: from a feeling to an assertion of consumer choice. And liking, in general, is commercial culture’s substitute for loving. The striking thing about all consumer products—and none more so than electronic devices and applications—is that they’re designed to be immensely likable. This is, in fact, the definition of a consumer product, in contrast to the product that is simply itself and whose makers aren’t fixated on your liking it. I’m thinking here of jet engines, laboratory equipment, serious art and literature.
But if you consider this in human terms, and you imagine a person defined by a desperation to be liked, what do you see? You see a person without integrity, without a center. In more pathological cases, you see a narcissist—a person who can’t tolerate the tarnishing of his or her self-image that not being liked represents, and who therefore either withdraws from human contact or goes to extreme, integrity-sacrificing lengths to be likable.
If you dedicate your existence to being likable, however, and if you adopt whatever cool persona is necessary to make it happen, it suggests that you’ve despaired of being loved for who you really are. And if you succeed in manipulating other people into liking you, it will be hard not to feel, at some level, contempt for those people, because they’ve fallen for your shtick. Those people exist to make you feel good about yourself, but how good can your feeling be when it’s provided by people you don’t respect? You may find yourself becoming depressed, or alcoholic, or, if you’re Donald Trump, running for president (and then quitting).
Consumer-technology products, of course, would never do anything this unattractive, because they’re not people. They are, however, great allies and enablers of narcissism. Alongside their built-in eagerness to be liked is a built-in eagerness to reflect well on us. Our lives look a lot more interesting when they’re filtered through the sexy Facebook interface. We star in our own movies, we photograph ourselves incessantly, we click the mouse and a machine confirms our sense of mastery. And, since our technology is really just an extension of ourselves, we don’t have to have contempt for its manipulability, the way we might with actual people. It’s all one big endless loop. We like the mirror and the mirror likes us. To friend a person is merely to include the person in our private hall of flattering mirrors.
I may be overstating the case, a little bit. Very probably, you’re sick to death of hearing social media dissed by cranky fifty-one-year-olds. My aim here is mainly to set up a contrast between the narcissistic tendencies of technology and the problem of actual love. My friend Alice Sebold likes to talk about “getting down in the pit and loving somebody.” She has in mind the dirt that love inevitably splatters on the mirror of our self-regard. The simple fact of the matter is that trying to be perfectly likable is incompatible with loving relationships. Sooner or later, for example, you’re going to find yourself in a hideous, screaming fight, and you’ll hear coming out of your mouth things that you yourself don’t like at all, things that shatter your self-image as a fair, kind, cool, attractive, in-control, funny, likable person. Something realer than likability has come out in you, and suddenly you’re having an actual life. Suddenly there’s a real choice to be made, not a fake consumer choice between a BlackBerry and an iPhone, but a question: Do I love this person? And, for the other person: Does this person love me? There is no such thing as a person whose real self you like every particle of. This is why a world of liking is ultimately a lie. But there is such a thing as a person whose real self you love every particle of. And this is why love is such an existential threat to the technoconsumerist order: it exposes the lie.
One of the heartening things about the plague of cell phones in my Manhattan neighborhood is that, among all the texting zombies and the party-planning yakkers on the sidewalks, I sometimes get to walk alongside somebody who’s having an honest-to-God fight with a person they love. I’m sure they’d prefer not to be having the fight on a public sidewalk, but here it’s happening to them anyway, and they’re behaving in a very, very uncool way. Shouting, accusing, pleading, abusing. This is the kind of thing that gives me hope for the world.
Which is not to say that love is only about fighting, or that radically self-involved people aren’t capable of accusing and abusing. What love is really about is a bottomless empathy, born out of the heart’s revelation that another person is every bit as real as you are. And this is why love, as I understand it, is always specific. Trying to love all of humanity may be a worthy endeavor, but, in a funny way, it keeps the focus on the self, on the self’s own moral or spiritual well-being. Whereas, to love a specific person, and to identify with their struggles and joys as if they were your own, you have to surrender some of your self.
When I was a senior in college, I took the first seminar the college had ever offered in literary theory, and I fell in love with the most brilliant student in that seminar. Both of us liked how instantly powerful literary theory made us feel—it’s similar to modern consumer technology in this regard—and we flattered ourselves on how much more sophisticated we were than the kids who were still doing those tedious old close-textual readings. For various theoretical reasons, we also thought it would be cool to get married. My mother, who had spent twenty years making me into a person who craved full-commitment love, now turned around and advocated that I spend my twenties, as she put it, “footloose and fancy-free.” Naturally, since I thought she was wrong about everything, I assumed she was wrong about this. I had to find out the hard way what a messy business commitment is.
The first thing we jettisoned was theory. As my soon-to-be wife once memorably remarked, after an unhappy scene in bed, “You can’t deconstruct and undress at the same time.” We spent a year on different continents and pretty quickly discovered that, although it was fun to fill the pages of our letters to each other with theoretical riffs, it wasn’t so fun to read these pages. But what really killed theory for me—and began to cure me, more generally, of my obsession with how I appeared to other people—was my love of fiction. There may be a superficial similarity between revising a piece of fiction and revising your Web page or your Facebook profile; but a page of prose doesn’t have those slick graphics to help bolster your self-image. If you’re moved to try to return the gift that other people’s fiction represents for you, you eventually can’t ignore what’s fraudulent or secondhand in your own pages. These pages are a mirror, too, and if you really love fiction you’ll find that the only pages worth keeping are the ones that reflect you as you really are.
The risk here, of course, is rejection. We can all handle being disliked now and then, because there’s such an infinitely big pool of potential likers. But to expose your whole self, not just the likable surface, and to have it rejected, can be catastrophically painful. The prospect of pain generally, the pain of loss, of breakup, of death, is what makes it so tempting to avoid love and stay safely in the world of liking. My wife and I, having married too young, eventually surrendered so much of ourselves and caused each other so much pain that we each had reason to regret ever having taken the plunge.
And yet I can’t quite make myself regret it. For one thing, our struggle to honor our commitment actively came to constitute who we were as people; we weren’t helium molecules, floating inertly through life; we bonded and we changed. For another thing—and this may be my main message to you all today—pain hurts, but it doesn’t kill. When you consider the alternative—an anesthetized dream of self-sufficiency, abetted by technology—pain emerges as the natural product and natural indicator of being alive in a resistant world. To go through a life painlessly is not to have lived. Even just to say to yourself, “Oh, I’ll get to that love and pain stuff later, maybe in my thirties,” is to consign yourself to ten years of merely taking up space on the planet and burning up its resources. Of being (and I mean this in the most damning sense of the word) a consumer.
What I said earlier, about how engagement with something you love compels you to face up to who you really are, may apply particularly to fiction writing, but it’s true of just about any work you undertake in love. I’d like to conclude here by talking about another love of mine.
When I was in college, and for many years after, I liked the natural world. Didn’t love it, but definitely liked it. It can be very pretty, nature. And since I’d been fired up by critical theory, and was looking for things to find wrong with the world and reasons to hate the people who ran it, I naturally gravitated to environmentalism, because there were certainly plenty of things wrong with the environment. And the more I looked at what was wrong—an exploding world population, exploding levels of resource consumption, rising global temperatures, the trashing of the oceans, the logging of our last old-growth forests—the angrier and more people-hating I became. Finally, around the time my marriage was breaking up and I was deciding that pain was one thing but spending the rest of my life feeling ever angrier and more unhappy was quite another, I made a conscious decision to stop worrying about the environment. There was nothing meaningful that I personally could do to save the planet, and I wanted to get on with devoting myself to the things I loved. I still tried to keep my carbon footprint small, but that was as far as I could go without falling back into rage and despair.
But then a funny thing happened to me. It’s a long story, but basically I fell in love with birds. I did this not without significant resistance, because it’s very uncool to be a birdwatcher, because anything that betrays real passion is by definition uncool. But little by little, in spite of myself, I developed this passion, and although one half of a passion is obsession, the other half is love. And so, yes, I kept a meticulous list of the birds I’d seen, and, yes, I went to inordinate lengths to see new species. But, no less important, whenever I looked at a bird, any bird, even a pigeon or a sparrow, I could feel my heart overflow with love. And love, as I’ve been trying to say today, is where our troubles begin.
Because now, not merely liking nature but loving a specific and vital part of it, I had no choice but to start worrying about the environment again. The news on that front was no better than when I’d decided to quit worrying about it—was considerably worse, in fact—but now those threatened forests and wetlands and oceans weren’t just pretty scenes for me to enjoy. They were the home of animals I loved. And here’s where a curious paradox emerged. My anger and pain and despair about the planet were only increased by my concern for wild birds, and yet, as I began to get involved in bird conservation and learned more about the many threats that birds face, it became, strangely, easier, not harder, to live with my anger and despair and pain.
How does this happen? I think, for one thing, my love of birds became a portal to an important, less self-centered part of myself that I’d never even known existed. Instead of continuing to drift forward through my life as a global citizen, liking and disliking and withholding my commitment for some later date, I was forced to confront a self that I had to either straight-up accept or flat-out reject. Which is what love will do to a person. Because the fundamental fact about all of us is that we’re alive for a while but will die before long. This fact is the real root cause of all our anger and pain and despair. And you can either run from this fact or, by way of love, you can embrace it.
Like I said, the bird thing was very unexpected to me. For most of my life, I hadn’t given much thought to animals. And maybe I was unlucky to find my way to birds so relatively late in life, or maybe I was lucky to find my way to them at all. But once you’re hit with a love like that, however late or early, it changes your relation to the world. In my case, for example, I’d abandoned doing journalism after a few early experiments, because the world of facts didn’t excite me the way the world of fiction did. But after my avian conversion experience had taught me to run toward my pain and anger and despair, rather than away from them, I started taking on a new kind of journalistic assignment. Whatever I most hated, at a particular moment, became the thing I wanted to write about. I went to Washington in the summer of 2003, when the Bush administration was doing things to the country that enraged me. I went to China a few years later, because I was being kept awake at night by my anger about the havoc the Chinese are wreaking on the environment. I went to the Mediterranean to interview the hunters and poachers who were slaughtering migratory songbirds. In each case, when meeting the enemy, I found people whom I really liked—in some cases outright loved. Hilarious, generous, brilliant gay Republican staffers. Fearless, miraculous young Chinese nature lovers. A gun-crazy Italian legislator who had very soft eyes and who quoted the animal-rights advocate Peter Singer to me. In each case, the blanket antipathy that had come so easily to me wasn’t so easy anymore.
When you stay in your room and rage or sneer or shrug your shoulders, as I did for many years, the world and its problems are impossibly daunting. But when you go out and put yourself in real relation to real people, or even just real animals, there’s a very real danger that you might end up loving some of them. And who knows what might happen to you then?
Copyright © 2012 by Jonathan Franzen