But then, of course, there’s ecstasy

But never fear – or fear, but fear for the right reasons – it’s not all machines. The other side of subordination is ecstasy. Ecstasy, in the way I’m using the word, is essentially the opposite of subordination – though I find opposites distasteful and a faulty mechanism of subordinators, that’s at least a simple way to start an understanding of this notion of ecstasy, and a full understanding of art comes from an understanding of how ecstasy and subordination can work together. If subordination is a mechanism of survival, ecstasy is a way to come close to death, to frightened yourself on purpose (because we weird human beings love to frighten ourselves for no rational reason other than the joy of it – what survival lesson can you learn from a roller coaster?). If subordination requires boundaries, ecstasy is the breakdown of barriers. This is necessary in art/literature because it requires the breakdown in distinction between self and other and an openness to vulnerability. Without this breakdown in distinction between self and other, art and literature just become rhetoric. If the endpoint of subordination is the elimination of vulnerability through the elimination of stimulation, ecstasy the bodyshattering clusterbomb. If subordination means that words have value in their capacity to mean, ecstasy means words provide a direct experience with no meaning necessary. So we experience somebody’s pain for the sake of experiencing somebody’s pain. Because we’re sickos, and we love it. But it’s also beautiful because the driving force is a mass of emotions with no distinguishable unit or category. It’s love – but it’s also hate in the way that hate is really love secretly. It’s fear and pity – but it’s fear and pity as a secret sort of hope and desperation.

Ecstasy and subordination need to work together because we are still humans, after all. You can’t just have a text that’s all raw emotions as a way to transmit emotions to people (well, you can, and I’d probably dig that, but you probably can’t for most people) because people’s survival instincts will kick in and shut down any open gates. So we craft pieces in ways as various as humans to open up the heartgates and let the Light of God flood in (now take a second to look at yourselves – how many of you heard the phrase “open up the heartgates and let the Light of God flood in” and thought “How cheesy and sentimental and not nearly as painless as the cold steal of machinery” – is it really the fault of the idea or the fault of the human tendency to resist openness? I, as a writer, must be much more conscious of that than any fake history of writing rules.)

A microrant there needs to be much more said about: A resistance to this idea – which, to me, is so obvious it’s hardly worth saying – comes from the thousandsofyears old lie that emotion leads to the greatest chaos. You can’t read a lot of emotional stuff cuz emotional stuff will lead you to be emotional and that’s bad cuz that’s chaotic and leads to wild youthparties that break windows with their booze ecstasies and lots of other dusty old Greek concepts that should’ve died with Plato. I’d argue that emotion has a greater moral position than the cold efficiency of reason. After all, Jesus said the greatest commandment was to love God and love your neighbor as yourself. He didn’t say the greatest thing one must do is follow this set of rules. The greatest thing one must do is to break down the distinction between self and other and act from this place of compassion. All laws then follow from that because you can’t murder if you’re able to become all people through broken barriers. This is the root law of most world religions – as much as it’s abused and ignored, it’s still there. To make ourselves into machines is to commit the great sin of dehumanization, the seed from which great sins grow, and few arguments of pragmatism can convince me otherwise. Sure, it’s very practical to go into this war and treat humans like slaughtermeat, but that don’t mean it’s good.

My point is: saying art’s value is its pleasure gets badmouthed by the same people who think murderwar is justified by what most practically protects us. Sure, it seems like a self-serving time waster to merely enjoy something without learning lessons or becoming more rationalmechanical – but it’s not self-serving because the self melts away (the root meaning of ecstasy) in what becomes twoself or a millionself. So, yeah, it’s self-serving that way – the way there is no distinction between self and other for a few intense moments of ecstasy – and the beauty of that is worth way more than any lessons anyone ever taught.


If you speak & mean & think, you might be a subordinator:

I suppose I should get around to real manifestoing eventually, right? Manifesto point number one: Stop subordinating.

Whenever I talk about the problems with our understanding of literature, I tend to use subordination as shorthand, but I fear this leads to misunderstanding: “By God, I’d never subordinate in a million years.” But you do subordinate. We all do. Here is, according to my definition, what subordination means: it means meaning. If I just said meaning, that would lead to the opposite type of confusion: “By God, of course I use meaning. I do all kinds of meaning. How could that possibly be wrong?”

I’ll explain: we subordinate and we mean because we’re afraid of death, and we don’t want to be afraid of death. We do lots of stuff to make the world less scary. These mechanisms include dualism, stratification, generalization, abstraction – um, well, communication and thinking for the most part. All that Greek stuff. Practical mechanisms for 1) knowing better how to survive while trapped in this mortal flesh, and 2) elevation of the fleshworld into the immortal abstract. Words are just abstractions representing – in other words, subordinate to – “real” things or representing the abstract (and I’ll discuss later how these two ways of understanding meaning lead to false understandings of difference between “real”ist and imaginative literature). Words, in this sense, are just little machines meant to make things easier and help us avoid the predators. If you think about all this as a mechanism of survival, you’ll recognize that it’s not a universally bad thing. I wouldn’t recommend for anyone to not try surviving. If your uncle Gronk gets poisoned by the purple strawberries but not by the speckled strawberries, dualistic thinking and generalization can be a life saver. If you tell your caveman family “purple strawberries bad” – because cavemen knew English, I guess? – then those words subordinated to “real” objects outside of them, and this becomes a very good thing, if survival is your only consideration.

It goes beyond this, though. This subordination is designed to eliminate stimulation of any kind, to make the whole being as efficient as machines. You do the same things every day like a machine because that helps you survive, but it also dulls all sense of stimulation. The more dull your day to day activity, the less vulnerable you are to smiladon attacks, the less you have to think about the tenuousness of mortality, etc.

But literature (and all art really) is the opposite of this. Literature is stimulation and vulnerability and death and life and danger – but that’s the joy and glory of it; that is the value of it. Too often people confuse “meaning” in the sense of words subordinate to concepts and “meaning” in the sense of value. The first meaning of “meaning” is just something incidental and secondary, not something necessary to literature; the second meaning of “meaning” – that book gave my life meaning, etc. – has very little to do with subordination to the abstract. And words don’t have to be machines. They can be predators.

We’ve always tried to rationalize this frustrating oppositeness. For example, lies like this: literature is designed to teach us to survive. But the joy of it is how it brings us so close to death with no lesson necessary. Or: literature causes us to eject all those really nasty emotions that cause so much chaos. But the emotions are the source of the value, not the ejection of them; the stimulation of the chaos is the value, not the thing literature is meant to eliminate. Or: literature presents us with a portrait of the human condition so we can learn what it means to be human. But that’s no more valid a generalization than any generalization about what women or like or what a certain ethnic group is like – when the simpler answer is much more compelling: the humanness of a character allows us to feel the same thing as the character, and no learning is necessary to make it good. It’s like Frank O’Hara says: he’s not writing for all history and all humanity (an unnecessary impossibility); he’s writing to one person at a time for that one momentary interlocution.

So if you think you don’t subordinate, you do. And that’s fine. But please stop doing it with literature or anything else human.