I don’t know if I could do nothing and be that cool with everything
by Lauren Berlant
I experimented with taking a day off. It was likely to be a failure, because it had to be an experiment, as I have no habits of leaving the desk, only habits of clawing a path back to it, which is odd because I never leave it, except when I am forced to by my job or my career, which are also what force me back, or there’s a movie to watch, but even then, if it’s at home, the “desk” comes with me like a friend, resting on the arm of the couch so I can turn to it anxiously when I hit a moment of not understanding. Even at the gym, I work on the elliptical. I am on a plane now. Leonardo DiCaprio’s coffee is shaking slow-mo and the people are acting as though they’re dissociating but his face is too wide, square, fat, or flat for me to cathect, which is a mimetic response.
I had begun to address my life with a flat voice. It was bad: usually I can get by with my drive to remain tethered to the potentially good event while meanwhile the infrastructure stumbles along. The causes of this sudden synthesis toward a dark plateau were, anyway, so overdetermined as to induce an affective semicolon. The correct analysis of a symptom does not reveal, produce, point to, or give confidence about the shape of its cure, which is why so much work in the humanities limps along in the phrases that follow out the description of a problem.
Two new big classes and a paper deadline and a vast job search and the students spilling out all late into December because we ask them to be intellectuals but give them no time to do it, inculcating in the upcoming professional class a fatigue autoerotics along with a shamed and confused awareness that these labor conditions allow only tumbling down a hill and then revising it later to look like a plan, when it was only doing what you could do at the time (my epitaph) in an act of blind hope. A cab driver today told me about all of the men he knows who beat women. I can’t remember why, it was like a dream. We talked of how hard it is to unlearn habits of intimate violence–not just to others but to oneself–since assuming a gender requires violence and shame and competence anxieties that never leave, and people can exhaust (fade or inflate) after a while of showing up for the audition. I promise that next year will be different: I won’t try to finish a book. I will be rolling around in a beginning that has already started. Meanwhile I felt I could crack into permanent consistency, although I don’t know what that would mean, if I didn’t take a day off.
Cold turkey was the only way, and yet I failed, because I decided to watch Greenberg. Goldmine! It turned out to be a film about a man trying to do nothing, which I found hilarious. When I type that I find something hilarious I think of Oskar in Jonathan Safran Foer’s astonishing Incredibly Close and Extremely Loud—how could he have written such a tender book—because Oskar is always cracking up, and when he does it it is so tender because it reveals his aloneness in the world, and his sense that he might fall over permanently if somebody doesn’t manifest a delight in observing the world right now. The book is about the history of his shame at having had a moment of hesitation. Greenberg is technically a comedy in that sense.
The stone-voiced and bitter Greenberg has relinquished compulsory ambition. This means in the film that he’s incapable of an attachment to anything that breathes, pets or persons. So he has to figure out what it means to live without building a life; so of course he’s a carpenter who has a feel for domestic infrastructure without having a feeling for it: first he’s in the doghouse, then he builds a doghouse, then he takes a dog to a house. So of course the film’s homeopathic alter to the career melodrama that blocks his access to the good life (he coulda been a contender) is heteropathic, a l o v e p l o t. The DIY generation that doesn’t mind being kind of mediocre at what it does teaches him to ratchet things down. An imagination wrote this that is so tiny a fruit fly would feel like an empty nester.
But I really liked it. I like Matthew Broderick films too, where he’s so abject I just marvel at the brave defenselessness of the acting. I like the Stallone of First Blood who forgot to put skin over his skeleton. I like dark acting that would have been slapstick if the filmmakers were dishonest. Greenberg is the meeting point between two affective/aesthetic idioms, mumblecore recessiveness and the indie-style of irony-admitting-it-was-melodrama-all-along. Stiller meets Greta Gerwig (and many other mumblecore stalwarts, who coproduced the thing too). But the portentous Noah Baumbach directed it, and as I was called portentous once, because I said I hated the way someone thought, I will think of him as my brother. Hate doesn’t equal love. It is a protest against airlessness.
There’s a dog with an autoimmune illness in the film, in case we needed more allegory. Blue Valentine also opens with a dog who comes to a bad end. They ask: if loving a dog is too much responsibility where are we headed? Has the imaginary for sociality come down to that measure? Everyone seeks an intimacy of proximity, or indirection, but (as Blue Valentine demonstrates) love demands more than wanting the dog to flourish; it requires knowing when to open the cage and when to keep it closed. Or else it’s just one blurt after another: “You seem really fine doing nothing,” says Gerwig’s character. “I want to be doing nothing. I’m doing nothing deliberately,” says Stiller. “I don’t know if I could do nothing and be that cool with everything,” Greta responds. Then she invites him to fuck. I believe in the math of that conversation that fucking=doing cool nothing. Score! But neither of them mean what they say, not that they know what they mean.
“I should be with a divorced 38 year old who has teenaged kids and low expectations about life.” he says. He writes enraged letters to institutions that disappoint him and he personalizes their failures. He’s a total bore. What does it mean to aspire to love someone who aspires to sheathe his sensorium in stale drama repetitions while handing off the non-sovereignty of attentive responsibility to the unfortunates who happen to be around? Ok, he learns to call the taxi to help him show up more or less on time. But it’s just another way of encountering the end of the good life fantasy in the guise of an emotional austerity that dresses itself up as profound realism, and in the absence of an analysis of what kinds of loss should replace the usual ones, we get the risk of couple love as the habit we must treasure as fidelity to life itself. (Indeed the aspiration is for couple love to be as tender as pet care.) So life goes on, and cruel optimism is allowed another chapter, and the question of how really to have a life continues its slouch. There’s also the dog in Wendy and Lucy. When I type “just another way” I mean this is where we are, tilting on the end of genre, among other things that indicate the pathetic state of relationality, among other things.
This post would be Combover 5 but it would also be Flatness 2 and Ambition 3. Things are taking shape! At least they are just, here.
Piece crossposted with Supervalent Thought. Images from Greenberg, Focus Features, 2010