A young man of my acquaintance recently ended his intimate relationship with a girl that had lasted some years, and announced the fact to the world on Facebook, together with some rather disobliging commentary on his former lover’s character. This mania for making public what ought to remain private is, if not entirely new (for, as the Bible tells us, there is no new thing under the sun), at least of such greatly increased intensity that it might as well be regarded as new. The possibility of publicity brings forth the desire for publicity.
Most men, observed Thoreau, live lives of quiet desperation; or perhaps one should say, once lived lives of quiet desperation. What has changed is not the desperation, but the quietness with which men now live it. The ability to give public voice to dissatisfaction in all its myriad manifestations has increased out of all proportion to the reasons for it, thus giving the impression that we live in the worst of times. But even the idea that we live in the worst of times has its consolations, for man is a natural seeker after superlatives and does not want to experience the merely average.
“It is as if our lives are real only insofar as other people know about them, as many as possible.”
I suppose that the mania for giving publicity to one’s own life arises from the feeling that what is only private cannot be of any importance, a feeling that is promoted by the publicity given to the supposedly intimate details of the lives of celebrities. I remember that buses in Nigeria used to have little mottos painted on them that gave advice to the public, for example Let them say—in other words, take no notice of the malice of evil-sayers. Another such motto asked Why die in silence? I haven’t been to Nigeria recently, but a motto more in keeping with contemporary mores would be Why live in silence? It is as if our lives are real only insofar as other people know about them, as many as possible.
But, of course, in reality we don’t want everything to be known about us: We want only those things about us to be known that we want to be known about us. We want our cake and to eat it, or as the French put it, the butter and the money for the butter. This desire is impossible to fulfill, but it is profoundly human. Which is one of the reasons, among no doubt many others, that human life will never be perfect or entirely satisfactory. We want six impossible things before breakfast.
A religious sensibility (which is now utterly alien to us, thanks to the belief that progress is illimitable) would protect us from the harmful illusion that anything less than having all our desires satisfied simultaneously is anomalous or unjust. And our demand that incompatible desires be met at the same time imposes strange obligations on others.
I first thought about this during the early years of the AIDS epidemic, when it was demanded of us that we should believe incompatible things simultaneously, for example that it was simply a disease like any other and that it was a disease of unprecedented importance and unique significance; that it could strike anybody but that certain group were martyrs to it; that it must be normalized and yet treated differently. For example, tests for it alone of all the thousands of ills that flesh was heir to had, by legal prescription, to be preceded by pre-test counseling. It was a bit like living under a small version of a communist dictatorship, in which the law of noncontradiction had been abrogated in favor of dialectics, under which all contradictions were compatible, but which contradictions had to be accepted was a matter of the official policy of the moment.
Human beings are funny. I remember a patient who insisted that her AIDS be treated as a disease like any other, but who also made sure we never forgot that she had contracted it voluntarily by deliberately injecting herself with the blood of a friend with AIDS. She was not suicidal, at least not in the sense that she wanted to die there and then, or anytime soon. Rather, she had a Byronic notion of the disease, a romantic conception of it as a badge of superior sensibility, which is to say that those who suffered from it were in some way morally superior to those who did not, and thus were imbued with a moral authority that others did not share. And yet at the same time she demanded to be treated matter-of-factly. By demanding this difficult psychological feat of us, recognition and nonrecognition at the same time (a feat to which, by the way, we proved equal by the exercise of self-control), she was in effect exerting her power over us. It was all very pathetic, a consequence of her thirst for significance in a mass society.
The demand for recognition and nonrecognition at the same time is surely one of the reasons for the outbreak of mass self-mutilation in the Western world in an age of celebrity. A person who treats his face and body like an ironmongery store can hardly desire or expect that you fail to notice it, but at the same time demands that you make no comment about it, draw no conclusions from it, express no aversion toward it, and treat him no differently because of it. You must accept him as he is, however he is, because he has an inalienable right to such acceptance. As a professional burglar once asked me, how could I expect him to give up burgling when he was a burglar and burglary was what he did?
I think the same dynamic (if I may call it such) is at work in the current vogue for transsexualism: “You must recognize me and not recognize me at the same time.” In this way, people can simultaneously enjoy the fruits of being normal and very different. To be merely the same as others is a wound to the ego in an age of celebrity, and yet we are herd animals who do not want to wander too far from the herd. And in an age of powerlessness we want to exert power.
What will be the next attempted reconciliation of our incompatible desires?
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