Contemptuous Expressions

June 21, 2009 — 22 Comments

Richard Feynman’s father taught his son one other important exercise. He would sit him down and they would go through the newspaper together. When they would come across a photo of pope blessing a group of people and he’d say “tell me the difference between these men.” Before Richard would reply he’d say, the difference is the hat, he’s wearing a hat. If the photo was of a general then it was the stars on his collar and if it was executive it was his suit. After years in the uniform business, Feynman’s father knew that in it or out of it the man wearing it is the same. They get stuck in traffic, make mistakes and take shits just like everybody else.

Feynman’s father probably had no idea that this was a deeply Stoic exercise. That although it’s where they got their reputation for pessimism, it’s the same freeing kind of objectivity. Epictetus told his students, when they’d quote some great philosopher, to picture themselves standing over the man having sex. Grunting, groaning and awkward; like the rest of us so completely detached from their ‘philosophical’ rhetoric. Marcus would deprive things of their euphemisms – roasted meat is a dead animal and vintage wine is old, fermented grapes. The aim was to see these things as they really are, to ‘strip away the legend that encrusts them.’

We forget, I think, how often our perception puffs things up and embellishes them. We underestimate how this hurts us spiritually as well as strategically. It makes us weak and uncritical. It doesn’t make us happy, in fact, it burdens us to take these things too seriously. Feynman and the Stoics exaggerated their objectivity not to undermine but as a means to fight bad habits.

The exercise breaks apart the fantasy that names and uniforms mean anything. It proves the alchemy false. For instance: think of the companies that intimidate us or whose golden halo follows former employees for the rest of their lives. Look for their weakness and see how it defines them. How helpless it renders them. Google running 41 tests to figure out what color blue to use. Microsoft buying friends like a lame rich kid. Think of artists and politicians: An author and their divorces. George Bush, from the world’s most powerful man to a sad, quiet desperation.

All that’s left then, believe it or not, is a few cheerful prospects. One, that you’re essentially no different than anyone else. The pope, a billionaire, a pariah – the same. Two, the chance to appreciate things as they actually are. The plain, inadvertent majesty of them. Finally, a complete rejection of the tendency for words and recognition to define reality. There is nothing anyone can say about you or what you do that changes whether it’s right, whether it makes you happy, whether it’s healthy.

Enough for Me

June 16, 2009 — 16 Comments

A little over two and a half years ago, Tucker and I ate at a turkish restaurant on the Lower East Side. He pointed to an American Apparel across the street, a company I had never heard of, and said you know, the owner pays Robert Greene a ton of money every month to answer his phone whenever he needs him. I thought, goddamn, that would be the life.

I spent most of the month of May living in an apartment above that store, working for Dov, answering to what amounts to a less lucrative, more hands on version of that job description. I was in the courtroom when the lawsuit over the billboard got settled and I thought, holy shit, Woody Allen.

Later, Tucker and I walked to the Barnes and Noble where he bought me the 33 Strategies of War. I read it on the plane back to Sacramento. He said, if I was going to work for him, I better know what was in it. And when Dov called me and told me we were flying back for the trial, I had just a few hours notice before my flight. I went to sleep and grabbed the abridged version of the War book on my way out the door.

Day before yesterday, I went to my girlfriend’s undergrad graduation ceremony. The one I would have been walking in, theoretically, had I not dropped out. I was impartial observer. Like I had no connection to these people, had never been one of them. Aaron had been right when he told me I could never go back, I would have been chasing a ghost.

In some ways, that’s about as close to the narrative arc as you can get. The dream it and you can do it. But I’m trying not to shy away from that for a reason. The Epicureans believed in storing up little pleasures and tucking them away until you needed them. Things that no one could ever take away, not even the worst of fate could prevent you from recalling and remembering. Though Viktor Frankl rooted his philosophy in Stoicism, in fact, it was this idea that he turned to over and over again at Auschwitz.

On my twenty second birthday I’m trying to keep in mind that there isn’t one thing that could happen, good or bad or luck or curse, that would change what I felt when I realized I was sitting in the same fucking chair as before. That more or less it was gravy from here. It was already what I’d asked for and thought too much to actually expect. And in that sense its not so much a fallacy as it is a kind of freedom.

A Quick Thought About The Web

June 12, 2009 — 13 Comments

I was talking with a incredibly smart lawyer yesterday, trying to draft a statement about what I’ll lightly call a potential shitstorm. I wrote something and he sent back what I’ve found to be the standard legal response to these issues – the it’s our policy not to comment on these matters but we dispute their validity. It was the only way to play it, he said, because a different response would encourage tabloid press. The more we give the more it will turn it into a feeding frenzy.

A tabloid cycle is propelled by news organizations scrambling for facts. The New York Post has this, the Times has that and they go back and forth battling for exclusives. To keep going they need someone’s cooperation, be it with quotes or facts or accusations. They are stuck in this box, in other words, and the best response makes that box as small as possible. You kill the story by depriving it of air.

That ends with the internet because the web works on a different set of economic assumptions. The main one being that information scarcity is not longer a limiting factor. What a Gawker reporter writes is in no way boxed in by what he doesn’t know. In fact, its in precisely in those grey areas that he is free to write and speculate as he pleases and where the best material comes from.

Obama understood this the way I am starting to understand this. We’re coming upon a world where the feeding frenzy is no longer over bits of information but over the lack of it. The worst thing that can happen in this model is that you leave things open to speculation.

What I think this means is that you won’t be able to kill a story the old way anymore. “No comment” gives the story life instead of taking it away. The new way will be to flood the market with facts and information, to root out grey areas and get the target off your back by taking the fun out of it.

A Suggested Reading Newsletter?

June 9, 2009 — 73 Comments

I’ve been getting a few emails about what happened to the “What I’m Reading” posts since I haven’t done one in a while. The format just wasn’t working for me and I felt like it wasn’t the best way to do it. I also tried messing around with Amazon reviews but I couldn’t get into it.

What would you guys think of a reading newsletter? I’m still fleshing the idea out in my head but I think it could work as an email sent out every one or two weeks with a list of interesting books I’ve been reading and short reviews. I try to make connections between books or ideas or at the very least use one book to turn me on to another one. This could be a much better way to do that.

I’d like to know if this something people would subscribe to. I have all these really cool, obscure books that I’ve discovered over the last six months that I want to recommend and talk about but a blog is just not the right way to do it. People should be able to email me back and we could talk about them and we can work through the books together. Or if you’re already doing this with someone else, send it to me because I’d like to sign up myself.

Easy Street

June 2, 2009 — 11 Comments

The painter Titian was a workhorse. As a teenager, he apprenticed for Giorgione, who taught him to paint by way of imitating his works. Titian, in other words, learned to paint by counterfeiting. He learned well, we know, because every now and then, a Giorgione piece is discovered to have been a Titian all along.

The next part of Titian’s career – decades of his life – are marked by what seem like tedious, low level hustling. There is hardly a person in Italy whose portrait he didn’t paint. He didn’t just do nobles and kings but their families and friends. Charles V, alone, he painted at least five times. For years he had the standing right to paint the Doge of Venice, and did successive portraits of multiple reigns. Often, he worked not by the patronage system, but on contract. Doing so much a pop, churning out paintings like a machine.

Vasari remarked that near Titian’s death, his style seems to change from a deliberate, painstaking technique to a loose, bold, even coarse series of brush strokes. Yet, from up close and afar, the works are still perfect – maybe better than what he did in his youth. Thinking that this was the key to his success, his imitators have tried to copy the style to mediocre and sloppy results. What they missed, Vasari realized, was that Titian’s comfort concealed the labor beneath the work; it hid the years spent in repetitious portrait painting, of working on the wage system, of learning every variety of face and light and committing it deep into his intuitive memory.

I guess what I mean to say is that we’re often like Titian’s imitators. We perceive a freedom and ease that simply does not exist. In fact, it not only doesn’t exist, but it obscures an effort we haven’t even begun to conceive. I remember when I first left school, I would see people come and go into the office while I was stuck with a schedule and a desk. It felt like they were free and I was in chains. Like, what it must feel to come and go as you please. To feel so secure in your position.

Now I have all that and I realize I was chasing a ghost. I don’t suddenly feel less constrained, I feel more. I’d seen the physical manifestations, what time they came in or where they answered the phone, and tricked myself into thinking that once you got there it all came easy. And of course, it doesn’t, it gets harder.

But if you can rid yourself of the pressure, you can at least start to understand that each one of theses phases has a purpose, purposes that are critically reliant on the phase that came before it. And appreciate it instead of struggling with resentment or dissatisfaction.