Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Real F-Word

Fragment from a failed roman d'essai:

The Pequod shivered to planks, Gatsby dead as autumn leaves, Daisy Miller going down in Rome, Holden in the nuthouse, Rooster Cogburn still a mean-ass drunk, Slothrop dismantled like a Nazi rocket, Sylvia ovened like an English muffin, Compson drowning with a condom in his mouth, Pound not making it cohere, Moriarty losing paradise when the car runs out of road, Eliot going to church, Whitman descending into epigrams, Sabbath descending to the cemetery, Sophie and Nathan dead in their bed, Rabbit running to a premature rest, Jake Barnes with nothing but a gash between his legs, so there we are.

The fact that our culture of Trumped-up success has generated a stellar literature of failure did nothing to assuage the permanent depression through which Our Nameless Protagonist suffered his adulthood (about which, the less said…). Nor was this constantly hovering cloud, this unshakeable knowledge of the nothingness of anything he might try to do, the nullity of anything he might dare to think, alleviated to any noticeable degree by his understanding of the dialectical sense of Our American Situation: we are perversely attracted to failure for the same reason that attracted Eve to the serpent’s testicular fruit. Failure is our one truly forbidden sin (we stand on line like Nooyawkers to commit all the others), it is the worst of all F-words, the unspeakable unthinkable, the abyss of capital, the void of value, the thing Horatio Alger (secret pedophile) warned us about (while inappropriately touching our great-great-grandparents; hey, the book ain’t called Ragged Dick for nothin’). So of course failure can only be the fear that haunts every second of our lives, a presence so constant we don’t notice it anymore, like the sound of our tires on a long highway drive. It is the whirlpool sucking us down and the threat that keeps us flailingly afloat. It is both the Great Unmentionable and the only word corresponding to a letter grade in our educational system: A doesn’t mean absolutely great, nor does B mean better than average, nor C coulda done better, nor D dumbass, but F now always and forever means Failure with a capital you know. And Failure, gentlemen, is not an option.

So is it any wonder that our country produces more lunatics than Hershey bars? With an ideology that demonizes failure married to an economy designed to maximize it, how could things be otherwise? For capitalism produces failure much more efficiently than wealth. The Forbes 400 can’t compare to the Failure 299,999,600 (though Malcolm’s baby is admittedly more euphonious). Measured even by capitalism’s own 24-carat yardstick, failure is the deepest truth of all of our lives. You’ll never, never, never ever, get rich. And even if you do, you’ll still have Bill Gates’s pseudo-Kermit voice or Donald Trump’s wilted lettuce hair. (So stop wasting money on lottery tickets and buy something useful, like crack.) If America is imagined as a bell (call it Liberty, appropriately cracked), even the few who successfully cling to its thin outer skin are in danger of slipping under the bottom edge and ending up inside, in that vast hidden void of failure where people packed more closely than Jacob Riis subjects struggle through forgettable lives in constant danger of being clobbered by the clapper. The unspeakable truth about America is that almost all Americans are, by their own implicit evaluation, unspeakable, and the successful are the worst of all. As F. Scott Fitzgerald might have said, The very rich are different from you and me; they can afford to be unspeakable in unthinkably extravagant ways.

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