Black Ribbon Award

Month: October, 2017



February of 2017 was when reality set in for a plurality of Americans. As it turned out, they were not in a dream. There was no coma imprisoning them this whole time to be let out of. The glitch in the Matrix was not going to be patched. Donald Trump was now by law the highest-level public official in the United States. After months of disbelief and teeth-gnashing, the facts of history had to be faced. Some threatened to move abroad. Some took to the streets with clever signs and hats. Some stayed in and hashtagged in sympathy. Some tried to check out of reality altogether. But for a select few, this was not enough. Donald Trump was a unique adversary whose defeat required, shall we say, uncanny methods.

After the inauguration, a document was made public entitled “A Spell to Bind Donald Trump and All Those Who Abet Him.” It describes a ritual “to be performed at midnight on every waning crescent moon until [Trump] is removed from office.” Its components include an unflattering picture of Trump, which they provide, a small orange candle, a white candle (any size), a Tower tarot card, water, salt, and a feather to represent elemental Water, Earth, and Air respectively, an ashtray or a dish of sand, etc. Pyrite and sulfur are optional. The resulting “binding spell” is not a curse or a hex, but one that would “restrain someone from doing harm.”

In other words, this is not the equivalent of magically punching a Nazi; rather, it is ripping the bullhorn from his hands, smashing his phone so he can’t tweet, tying him up, and throwing him in a dark basement where he can’t hurt anyone.

“This document has been making the rounds in a number of magical groups both secretive and public,” writes self-professed “eclectic magician” Michael M. Hughes. “I make no claims about its efficacy … . But many are clearly taking it very seriously.” Among the many was Lana Del Rey, who tweeted the dates of the crescent moons and added, somewhat unhelpfully, that “Ingredients can b found online.” (The tweet has been deleted.) Del Rey became something of the unofficial spokeswoman for the effort, making one wonder how many occult rituals are being performed without a celebrity’s endorsement.

But the exposure has not produced any tangible results so far. Nine rituals later, Trump is unhappy about his job, but he is still able to add little touches of harm on top of the regimen of violence, indignity, disenfranchisement, and confusion the United States government regularly provides to people within and without its borders. When asked about the ritual by NME, Del Rey offered the coda appropriate to the underwhelming outcome: “Look, I do a lot of shit.”

The failure to harness the power of the occult to effect change seems like no great loss in the swirling sewage of failure coursing through this year. But it offers some interesting dilemmas depending on the root cause of that failure. I can think of three.

The first possible cause is that witchcraft and other dark arts simply do not work. Even Hughes admitted this possibility in his introduction to the ritual. Some people, he wrote, saw it more as a symbolic “mass art/consciousness-raising project” not unlike the time Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies tried to levitate the Pentagon in 1967. And Del Rey’s neo-hippie cum Nico persona simply compounded its countercultural sheen. It is aesthetic and cathartic rather than properly spiritual, another crest of the wave of “neopaganism” that, however deeply or shallowly adhered to, stands in for broad antipathy of the mainstream.

The second possible cause is that witchcraft and other dark arts do work, but that they were not powerful enough. Not, anyway, compared to the power of God as it is infused with Donald Trump. The pro-Trump Christians are correct. Donald Trump’s moral character and keen mind are what is required to revive America from its malaise and to bring Christ’s message back at the center of American life.

Some may chortle at that second one, and while I am not one to chortle I will at least plaintively nod along. Even if Donald Trump does possess a moral character that ventures somewhere beyond “what looks best,” his grasp on religious matters gives numerous Christians pause. And yet there is something to the Trump presidency that can’t quite be rationalized. A kind of charisma hangs around him that no one can lift; that empowers him exponentially, if not to push forward on an agenda then at least to confound and dizzy his adversaries. No one can quite best him, and the screeching sound of his scurrilous minions being vindicated over and over is still more salt in the psychic wound. It could be that Trump is that good. Or it could also be the third possible cause of the binding spell’s failure: witchcraft and other darks do work, but the pro-Trump camp knew them better.

One makes this suggestion with caution. It brings to most people’s minds the odious memory of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s harried, booze-sodden face of as he accused the entire United States Army of having been subverted by Communists. McCarthy’s legacy is a pox on all of us. His rise exposed us as a public who craves showmanship at the expense of precision. His fall left the impression that our institutions were invulnerable to duplicity and sabotage.

In 1943, the National Security Agency enacted the Venona Project with the purpose of intercepting and decrypting messages sent from Soviet intelligence agencies. The project lasted until 1980, receiving thousands of transmissions. In the process they uncovered several spy operations being undertaken in the United States and other Western nations, often in close proximity to or right inside of the halls of power. Evidence against the likes of Alger Hiss, Harry Dexter White, the Cambridge Five, the Rosenbergs, Victor Perlo, and others were gathered by this project, though none of it had been made public until 1995.

For as long as the United States remains a powerful nation—and maybe even after its decline, for the hell of it—there will always be nefarious actors looking to infiltrate it at any level. And to exclude the purveyors of the ultimate darkness from these actors would be senseless and dangerous, especially when that darkness has so eminently fillable a vessel as the White House’s current host. Among the greatest embarrassments of the liberal order is how it has wasted the potential of countless inquisitors and left aimless several would-be Witchfinder Generals in far less dignified roles as, I don’t know, Recreation Commissioners, or Board of Education Presidents.

But here I hesitate again in suggesting their immediate reinstatement for two reasons.

First is the possibility that a Satanic presidency will have no greater a success record than any Christian presidency. Surveying our most pious recent Presidents—Kennedy, Carter, Reagan, and Bush II—no consistent Christian thread runs through any of them. In some instances, the guidance of Christ went almost entirely unheeded. It stands to reason that the occult will have just as many obstacles to perfect application. The United States government is susceptible to vice, it is a matter of finding what doors are open for its delivery at a given moment. The witches and warlocks of the Trump administration could be smuggling in all the sacrificial babes, virgins, and fauna that we can procure for them, and they may never get it exactly right.

Second is the benefit occult operations in government bring us generally. For all of its antagonism toward virtue, peace, and man’s salvation from his fall, witchcraft brings a sense of balance where a sense of nothingness once was. What is a worse method: a free jazz approach to governance spawned of mindless self-indulgence, or of hyperfocused malice of an otherworldly menace? What is a worse outcome: shortsighted institutional corruption for pure grift, or the farseeing institutional corruption for the Fallen Prince to gain his foothold into our plane for the expansion of his Dark Realm? Indeed, such is the state of our affairs that not a few may look on the blackening of the sun, the wailing of the dead, the flaying of the innocent, and the preponderance of locusts and think, “At least it was to some purpose!” before being shredded asunder by hooks from every direction but no certain origin.

An occult of this kind is of eminent use for the American public, not because its victory will somehow ennoble us, of course, but because of the example it offers. Our moment of petty evils can accumulate in to a far greater evil without vigilance. This is the lesson of Robert Eggers’s now-classic The Witch that seemed lost on the Satanic Temple. “Living deliciously” is liberating only insofar as an obstinate and prideful Christianity will enable it to seem in comparison. In the end, adherents still give themselves over to a power greater than themselves, though it is a power that may not really care one way or the other who is giving or why, only so long as they fulfill his obligations for the opportunity. On that alone, our quid quo pro-affectionate President cannot deny its appeal.



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My favorite method of distinguishing one hub of Western Civilization from another is to discern how its people see its heroes. Each nation of the West worships heroes but they never do so in an identical way. The German hero is a clear-eyed engineer leading the Volk as passengers on the rails toward their destiny. England does not see the bother about heroes but keeps them on as an extension of their irony before quickly disposing of them once they get bored. Ireland takes the opposite view. Spain has God for want of better options. Italy takes that opposite view. No one cares about France.

The United States is part of this but always manages to make things more complicated. Americans are a humble, joyous, and simplistic people who want for nothing but more dignity in being humble, joyous, and simplistic. Their hero towers over them as if giving the correct pose for his or her inevitable monument. The hero is a genius whose vision peers far beyond their blurry-eyed ken but whose ends will ensure that their vision is no clearer than it already is. This has made Americans rather promiscuous about its heroes, offering no consistent type to pinpoint how we want what we want. Often we take several heroes at once. In every case, though, they are given the status at the demand of the people, whether the status is sought after or not. If there is one overriding characteristic of Americans it is their romantic pathos of either being saddled with mass existential burden or of wanting but failing to be saddled with said burden.

This seems an odd thing to bring up in the United States of 2017, which has reached a fever pitch of iconoclasm. Much of what passed for heroism before this year has been unveiled as a sham at best or utter villainy at worst. One can’t really look on the whole mess and deny that they could not see it coming. But of course the hero’s death is greatly exaggerated in America. And even when Americans are never out in search of one they always seem to find one anyway, who compliments completely their priorities and their predicament, and who has a lantern with which to show them the way out of whatever it is they are in.

The Twitter account that goes by the handle @dril appeared on the site in September of 2008. It is part of a larger subset of “weird” accounts, many of which migrated from the doldrums of the Something Awful forums. Regular users of Twitter are bound to have seen at least one of @dril’s tweets, or seen them referenced or imitated (however willfully or not), as the account has garnered over 800,000 followers. The style is easy to detect with its mangled syntax, spelling, and grammar, but most of all its absurd humor. Imagine the crude acidity of retirees in line at Dunkin Donuts, the observational satire of Randy Newman, and synapses clouded by bitter divorce and some horribly tainted kush. And then you get @dril.

One hesitates to address @dril in any way other than by @dril’s handle. For no one knows who @dril is. There are rumors, of course. @dril is either a burnt out graphic designer or many burnt out graphic designers, based either in New Jersey or Philadelphia. But one could fall into a deep sad wormhole of maybes. Maybe @dril has a lover or spouse, or even children, who keep the secret. Maybe some people across the country, who are tragically keyed into Twitter culture, remember a high school or college classmate with an eccentric gift of gab who never had an outlet before now. Maybe @dril is your guidance counselor. Maybe @dril is your car inspector. Maybe @dril is sleeping right next to you, forgetting to take out the recycling. These are idle fantasies. No one, save maybe Julian Assange, has any interest in making any of them real. @dril, ostensibly, is no one, and seeks to be nothing more than no one in an age in which nothing matters. For the masses stuck in this age, there is no more ideal hero than @dril.

I merely echo in my own words Clayton Purdom at AV Club, who praised @dril this week for possessing a nonpartisan appeal that is vanishingly rare in this cultural climate. “Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter ‘who Dril is,’” he writes.

Dril is a ghost, an id, a fictional bucket into which all the scorn of the internet has been heaped. Dril has returned to this hellscape imagery repeatedly over the years, and it helps to explain the nightmare-like vividness of his convictions, as well as their ability to dissolve and reformulate from one tweet to the next. It has the mutable logic of a dream.

The @dril tweet is formulated in such a way that it confirms everything followers of @dril feared about the internal monologue of the Other. The Other is just as imprecise as @dril’s authorship, though in most cases it is someone who is unfamiliar with the philology of “corncob binch.” @dril is a very pure, even celestial, impurity, allowing us to cope with everyday grotesquery and perversion through its signature digital packaging, which can be consumed like vomit in Snack Packs. “In music, there is the purist who refuses to sell out,” Brendan Gallagher writes. “Twitter has @dril.”

Then @dril sold out.

On Inauguration Day, somewhat appropriately, @dril launched an account on Patreon, a haven for untethered creatives and freelancers to hawk content in exchange for actual currency from subscribers. Called “Hell,” @dril’s fanbase pays a combined $2,200 a month for product. @dril further pledges to publish two books, one of which being a collection of “hundreds of hand picked posts … sorted by subjects (guns, politics, digimon otis, etc).” @dril would not be the first Twitter account to have tweets committed to paper, coming after Tao Lin and Dave Hickey. @dril also follows La Rochefoucauld, Pascal, G.C. Lichtenberg, Ambrose Bierce, Karl Kraus, and especially Malcolm de Chazal. “Death is the bowel movement of the soul evacuating the body by intense pressure on the spiritual anus,” is nothing if not a primordial, albeit chaster and diamond-encrusted, @dril tweet.

But Purdom has a point when he writes that “any artist would dream of this kind of success, but popularity only makes subversion more difficult.”

There’s something deflating about knowing the exact dollar amount Dril’s creator earns—and who needs Twitter in book form? And the risk of all this wider exposure is that he loses his mystique and lapses into self-parody, like some sort of internet Banksy.

Equally as contorted as the American conception of the hero is the American conception of the sellout. On the surface it comes down to a question of authenticity. The sellout has lost him or herself to some baser calling. It is also a question of integrity: not compromising one’s principles for purely mercenary gain. These were most scathingly explored in the 2001 live action adaptation of Josie and the Pussycats, in which the Archie spinoff band is plucked from obscurity in Riverdale to massive stardom and, ultimately, corporate spokesthingship. Yet at the same time, selling out is a strange concern to have when success in America is rooted largely in popularity and marketability.

Creatives naturally gravitate to form a scene, and through nods, handshakes, and winks they form standards of ethics, aesthetics, and hierarchy. All cultural communities in the United States are molded on the transcendentalist movement. Each scene type descends from it: the high priest (Ralph Waldo Emerson), the quality control (Margaret Fuller), the pretentious blowhard (Amos Bronson Alcott), the activist (Horace Mann), the runt (Henry David Thoreau), and various hangers-on (Orestes Brownson, etc.). Such scenes are somewhat porous, but generally united through mutual interest and held together by force of personality.

Nathaniel Hawthorne flirted with transcendentalism, albeit mostly by circumstance. He lived in the experimental community Brook Farm and later next to Emerson. But Hawthorne was at heart a moody moralist who preferred romantic symbolism to pure sermonizing. Hawthorne has, in fact, transcended his cultural era through his strange work, while transcendentalists remain a largely dated concern. (Fuller dying at sea probably didn’t help.) And those acolytes of the movement who also broke out of the bubble—Thoreau, Walt Whitman—did so in spite of Emerson’s elder statesmanship.

Yet the story of selling out is always told from the scene’s perspective. And the sellout’s explaining why s/he so abandoned the scene is a customary form of grudging tribute. (The Blithdale Excuse, let’s call it.) Scenes, for good or ill, are the last vestiges of America’s communitarian impulse, representing simplicity, security, and naturally bred culture. People work hard to cultivate it, for some it is all they need or want. But members as a result bristle at outsiders. They are even more wary of nomads, someone passing through and taking resources for a shrouded long game in which they play a nonconsensual role. Notions of “friendship of utility” and ends-as-means don’t put the sellout in a kind light, to be sure. Selling out is best understood as a breach of etiquette.  But scenes can eventually gravitate from cultural flourishing to cultural management. If a Brooks Farm sustains itself, it is just as susceptible to becoming a Stepford later.

Because @dril is not authentic, and @dril’s integrity is not very clear, @dril’s ascendance from Hell to “Hell” is something of a non-issue. No one will really care because selling out as we have known it is itself a non-issue. Insulation and aloofness read in this moment like luxuries. Survival is the game, and fortifying one’s brand is as good a way as any other to win it. Today, the only respectable way to keep oneself pure is to have nothing anyone wants to buy.

For @dril, as with Hawthorne, selling out is as much an act of sovereignty, of using tools at one’s disposal, and of customizing one’s own flourishing. @dril’s example effectively takes a brickbat to the cultural dichotomy of more economically sound times. It used to be that we had two options for shelter: the temple or the shopping mall. Yes, the temple is burning from the roof down and the shopping mall is burning from the basement up, but either beats scavenging out in the cold, right? But @dril being our anointed hero in this cycle has that far-reaching sight I mentioned before; and lo, @dril has spotted a great landmass beyond the infernal structures. It is a volcano, which @dril is in the midst of scaling to serve the goodly spinning wheel of Mother Gaia.

But this is a challenge, not a sacrifice. It would be wasteful of @dril to be the only one to dive into the magma of brand maximization. Some, certainly, are comfortable in their corner of either shelter, if they have been able to keep them. Some may even have resigned themselves to wandering the outer limits. But for those who are afraid, either of losing their integrity or their solvency, @dril is there laying a gentle hand on your shoulder, just before pushing you over the edge. If there is a central message of @dril it’s that in this world none of us are free from being owned. We might as well own ourselves.


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In February of 2013 I took a meeting at GQ. Back then its office was still in the original Condé Nast Building at 4 Times Square. It was with the research editor in hopes of getting a $25 an hour fact-checking gig. I didn’t know it was freelance at the time, but at least it would have been at the offices, which I much prefer than doing remotely. I wore a suit, my only one at the time, which no longer fits me. Because NJ Transit is selectively functional I am always into the city ahead of schedule. I paced around a cold but sunny Bryant Park just after they dismantled the skating rink. I paced around the spacious, minimally adorned Condé Nast lobby while I waited for approval to go up. (It took about three calls.) I paced around the corridor in between GQ and Teen Vogue before I was finally buzzed in. I passed by an island of drab grey cubicles, which I took to be the research or otherwise miscellaneous departments; the more brightly colored editorial section flashed in my side view like a fluorescent Xanadu. I met the research editor. He was amiable, sharp, and down-to-earth. A fellow New Jerseyan at that. Our meeting lasted about 25 minutes. I told him that GQ published the only John Jeremiah Sullivan piece I  can tolerate. He was grateful. He didn’t have anything for me.

I knew halfway into the interview that I was overshooting, that I had miscalculated somehow, and that this was as far as I was ever going to get. I was not unqualified in the least. I had four previous stays at magazines, all of which are either gone or mutated into forms I no longer recognize. But my career path had led to a very nice cul-de-sac with no vacancies, and this meeting was the roundabout way in which I was being told to turn around. You are actually in a dream, this is the end of it, and when the cold hits you on the way out, you will disappear because, actually, you are not the dreamer. Somewhat related: if it turns out that the Greeks were right after all, I would be not the least bit surprised—delighted, in fact—to find myself being taken down the river Styx by a bespectacled Gen X Charon, in jeans and a nice sweater.

Discouraged, I did nothing for months, which I regret. I should have been plotting my next conquest as early as the trainride home. The outcomes would have been no different, but I would have benefitted from the bringing the lesson that was merely implied in the original encounter out from the shadows and right in front of my nose.

Here you may be tempted to stop reading if you haven’t done so already. What use is it to hear another rose-colored praise chorus for the character-building virtues of failure? Only pain gives way to gain, you see? And things that don’t kill you can only ma— yadda yadda yadda, who cares? This is not that. Not that you won’t stop reading soon after this, as what I have in mind is much worse.

“I actually haven’t survived the fickle world of media that well,” Choire Sicha admitted last month, answering a question icons of midrange fame in this professional quadrant will never avoid. And in fact he continues as if he was carrying this reply in his back pocket for years:

I’ve moved out of apartments in the middle of the night, I’ve owed massive amounts of money to the IRS, I’ve searched for gas and cigarette money in the couch cushions. I’ve done all these things as a grown adult man, not as a 19-year-old, and it was not cute. I think everyone makes it look easy when they have a good job or are wearing nice shoes, but anyone who wants to work in journalism has downs and ups, and we don’t want to talk about the downs as much as we should.

I occasionally hear and read about this era they call the Golden Age of Media. Depending on who is addressing me, it is either right this moment, or about 15 years ago. For the latter it was a time when one could walk into any communicative hub and hold a job for more than five minutes, when “associate editor” had some measurable distinction, when writing had substance, and when video editors were not leaping from the dark corners of your ideation capsule to scalp you. I don’t doubt that such a time had ever existed, but I tend to turn a deaf ear to those who lament it with entitlement rather than a tragic sense of good fortune upended. Congratulations! You were at the tail end of the blip of stability in an otherwise chaotic industry. But maybe don’t take my word for it.

Daniel Defoe is best known for having written a novel that everyone reveres as a classic but that no one seems to like. Charles Dickens famously summed up Robinson Crusoe as “the only instance of an universally popular book that could make no one laugh and could make no one cry.” But Defoe’s novels were written later in his life, with the years previous being taken up by his copious pamphlets and journalism. Like his Augustan peers/enemies Addison, Steele, and Swift, Defoe did not earn income primarily through his written work—in his case he was a merchant and tax collector—but he is nonetheless recognizable as the first modern hack. He was a political pundit, a disaster reporter, an economics analyst, and a content farmer.

Defoe would have understood the struggles of today’s media grunt, and might also have thrived among them. His anonymously published 1702 pamphlet The Shortest-Way with Dissenters was hailed as a rigorous (and violent) defense of high church orthodoxy against Presbyterians and other freethinking faiths. When it was revealed that the Presbyterian Defoe was making the opposite case through irony, he was imprisoned. Defoe was also an eager networker, making business contacts while also working as a spy for the crown in Scotland during the unification. Though he never could escape debt, and it is said that he died in 1731, around age 70, evading his creditors.

I am in no position to teach nascent journalists, I do not intend to seek one, and no one else offers it to me. But if anyone I know ever does and deigns to solicit advice, mentioning the Defoe example in some manner is the only one of substance I can offer. It serves two purposes. First, it instills students and interns with the full measure and timelessness of the professional hustle they need to foster in themselves. It is far better than getting it from any “mentor” whose history is in flux as long as he or she is living and is at liberty to adjust the levels of romance and pathos as desired. Second and most importantly, it eases the young into the inevitable disillusionment they are going to have to face—and not merely in journalism.

But introducing disillusionment education at the college level is not soon enough. Unlike failure, disillusionment is not a setback that can be reversed or learned from, nor is it an exclusive byproduct of failure. In fact it is possibly more often wrought out of success. Disillusionment should be taught in elementary-level health class at the earliest. Because it is like pregnancy: a natural occurrence that could become a crisis without adequate vigilance. Yet many of us fall into teaching the opposite lessons of positive thinking and “dreaming big.” “Positivity is not so much our condition or our mood as it is part of our ideology,” Barbara Ehrenreich writes, “the way we explain the world and think we ought to function within it.”

Culture is seldom wanting in sad platoons ready to drown in optimism’s moat. And really no one wants to deal with a cheermonger anymore than they want to deal with a buzzkill. But there’s always a kind of hedge being made, or a delusion being conjured, when telling people to manage their expectations. Realism, the preferred hedge, means getting a key to a mansion that is actually meant for a bungalow on the other side of town. But there is little to be said when one gets the key to the mansion only to find it filled with bedbug-infested furniture.

Part of it might boil down to simple optics. The realist is grounded in maturity. The failure rises up from tragedy. But the disillusioned is weighted by defeat. To determine that one is disillusioned means also to determine that one is a loser. Not that it is easy to determine. Disillusionment sets in at a pace custom to the one at a loss. Sometimes the losses are slight, but can often accumulate into a larger malaise. Other times it is a gradual degradation of single objective that outwits, overpowers, and finally buries its opponent. In either case, the end result is an equalization of every experience into drudgery.

After a certain point disillusionment is impossible to prepare for, and only identifiable when it is too late. Two instances in popular culture demonstrate this.

One is the Amazon Prime comedy I Love Dick, in which Chris Kraus (Kathryn Hahn) becomes sexually obsessed with Dick (Kevin Bacon), a Marfa, TX-based artist who is sponsoring her husband’s academic fellowship. Based on Chris Kraus’s experimental memoir/epistolary novel, the show explores some interesting contrasts. The most buzzworthy is that between female loserdom and male humiliation; but more broadly it offers two distinct forms of disillusionment. Chris is a struggling filmmaker who plays second fiddle to her barely more successful husband in a town whose quirky customs and haute aesthete population constantly get the better of her. Dick is an established artist and local icon, who has not created new work in years and drifts palpably into isolated irrelevance. Their situations are familiar but carefully drawn enough to constitute much more than two midlife crisis dramedies crammed into one. Chris and Dick are drawn to and repelled from one another in stranger ways than mere lust can handle. Theirs is an affair, really a duel, of inadequacies, which compliment as well as best each other.

The other is Donald Trump, whose behavior over the last nine months has been more plainly indicative of one who is (a) ill-prepared for his current job and (b) frustrated by its trappings. As hazardous as his Twitter use is, Trump displays an unprecedented transparency by letting anyone with internet access into his thought process as any other user would, and in all their increasing jaundice, petulance, and boredom. In a more customary situation we would hate Rex Tillerson and Jeff Sessions somewhat more than we do now. But Trump’s disdain for his position puts everyone near and far to him under the same thunderdome of defeated victory. The strange (albeit very trivial) solace is in seeing what happens one man makes bold claims and just enough people call his bluff.

If these examples have anything to add to teaching disillusion, it is mostly in demonstrating the challenge of rising up from it. Conceivably it can at least be mollified, but by acceptance, not improvement. Trump could stabilize but he’d still have to take his loss. This seems unlikely, as refusing to give ground is his only distinctive attribute. Acceptance in this case means relieving oneself of burdens, achieving a kind of emotional minimalism, even asceticism. This is not to encourage self-denial but to concede that there is only so much one person can take on in a lifetime.

The ultimate trouble with disillusion is that it has no end; only a cycle one falls into. Of going to bed at night waiting to be throttled all over again by a new day; and of waking up in the morning one day nearer the grave. There beneath the truth of daily living is its skeleton. It has no cure. One can, I guess, take up the activity of grinding the bones to dust with all the diversionary splendor of building model train sets, no one will go out of their way to pass judgment aloud. For the more cold-sighted among us, there is the work of accepting and walking in the truth, and prayer that those not currently chaffing under its intensity will do so in time.



I had looked on Matt Spicer’s debut feature  Ingrid Goes West with keen interest for a few weeks before seeing it. It tells of Ingrid Thorburn (played by Aubrey Plaza), a lonely Pennsylvanian, whose combined obsessive streak and lack of social skills cause her to interpret online notifications as gestures of intimacy. Much of her free time—and there is a lot of it—is spent scrolling her Instagram feed, “liking” posts and agonizing over the proper wording of comments. When her greatest fixation gets married, Ingrid crashes the wedding and sprays mace in her eyes. After her release from a psychiatric institution, she finds another, a professional #authenticlife social media influencer named Taylor (played by Elizabeth Olsen), in California. With a $60,000 inheritance from her recently dead mother, she moves to Venice and the process starts again with even worse outcomes.

As a pointedly bleak satire on the people who (sometimes literally) profit by social media through the eyes of the people at its mercy, there was much to commend it. Spicer and cowriter David Branson Smith have a precise aim on culture’s over-commoditized state. They depict a world where no one reads books, where art is commentary on secondhand camp, where food is more pleasing to the eye than to the tongue, and where shrewd judgment merits success far more than skill, taste, or personality. The most scathing of its scenes is when Ingrid, out of toilet paper (not to mention money and electricity), uses pages from Joan Didion, which she bought based on Taylor’s endorsement, in desperation, clogging her plumbing.

And yet the film fell short of my suspicion that it might be among the best released in 2017. It’s good, don’t get me wrong, but it’s hobbled itself from greatness. Its satirical gaze was easily diverted by the allure of the unlikeable protagonist. When the film drags its secondary characters to earth, it pulls Ingrid down to the molten core. Any salient lob is undercut by Ingrid’s penchant for criminal behavior (kidnapping dog and man alike), Single White Female tendencies, and an almost lethal selfishness. And her gutting video selfie cum suicide note is set up only to get knocked down by her ultimate, cartoonishly rendered irredeemability (more on that later). Though a friend of mine who also saw it made a valid point that suggesting a sociopath could infiltrate lifestyle Instagram without much effort is a pretty hard-hitting own, I still thought it let more deserving targets go free. The Day of the Locust in X-Pro II filter this was not.

Part of my disappointment can be put to bias. Did I have an ax to grind against a certain socially Teflon style of human? Maybe. Did I want to empathize with, even root for, the titular (anti)heroine? Yes. I have affinity for portrayals of the inability, as opposed to the unwillingness, to integrate into popular norms. It’s a dilemma made all the more acute by social media’s insurmountable dominance. A sharper film may yet be possible; for now I work with what I have.

If IMDb is to be believed, Aubrey Plaza was born on June 26, 1984. If my birth certificate is to be believed, I was born on June 22, 1984. The film does not give Ingrid temporal placing outside of her generation, and though this framework may be questionable for one reason or another, I find it a helpful convenience. I recall Thomas Hobbes’s mordant quip that “my mother gave birth to twins: myself and fear” when panic over the Spanish Armada’s launch caused her to go into labor prematurely. So far as I know, the circumstances of my birth were unremarkable, but abjection always seemed to me my own secret sibling, that trailed my path as if in envy of my shadow. But this had no proper articulation until I saw Ingrid, whose character does more to compliment than contrast my predicament. Granted, she confronts the predicament in ways I would not think to, and cannot altogether excuse. But I also cannot, like any attentive sibling, misunderstand.

There’s nothing very offensive about the social media influencers when I think about it. They are probably more in tune than I am with flaw, error, and disorder. It takes a certain obsessive caginess to arrange a living room just so with 40-year-old unread back issues of the fashion magazines they are killing; a turntable with a blues record freshly wiped of dust; secondhand books on witchcraft and ancient sex positions in between potted plants that are replaced biweekly; and furniture, fashion, and accessories that have to be meticulously catalogued because they’ve chosen to make their lives a catalogue to others. They supply happiness, but they don’t really own or control it. Their end presentation is like a cell—a diorama, even a zoo. Happiness is the corporate body that grants them their franchise. They are happy to work more than they are to represent any set form of that happiness.

Each character in the film has happiness as their object. Considerable dialogue is spent discussing what they want to do. Ingrid’s landlord wants to write screenplays (and also to be liked by Ingrid), Taylor wants to buy another house in Joshua Tree to turn it into a boutique bed and breakfast, her husband wants artistic talent. Ingrid wants someone all to herself, preferably another woman, to fill a bottomless void. But here happiness comes with ground rules that some follow better than others. Ingrid takes them so seriously as to consider baggage anything that doesn’t cohere with those rules; like her past, her health, or rule of law. Ingrid is an emotional extremist who was denied consistent moderating influence. But even extremists who are more attuned to it and seek out moderation will never be fully prepared for each new test happiness hands down.

Unlike Ingrid, I am not a fast adapter to the internet. I’m not the type of person who, rightly or wrongly, was excited by the ease with which people and information made themselves known on it. I mean, early on there wasn’t a lot there to begin with, but even so I was predisposed to not only being overwhelmed by what could be accessed but to question most of its veracity. For all the celebration and condemnation of what can be exposed online, so much more can be obscured. But I prefer the idea that nothing so easily found should be taken in total as a complete truth. Certainly not people, and especially not friendship, which for me requires some effort to be earned if anyone wants to rise above the suspicion of being a catfish. On the internet, everyone is a pornographer peddling a fantasy.

This is a comfortable status quo compared to the alternative, where everything is on display as it should be. More effecting than any pornography is the glut of authenticity that is more prevalent on any social media platform, especially on Instagram, whose “explore” feed moves like an ooze as one falls into its scrolling hypnosis. No one goes there in a state of contentment and so is made vulnerable to gross displays of people living their best life, to varieties of experience never before seen and levels of elation never before comprehended. But whereas Ingrid will go above and beyond to emulate it, I come to resent it.

Resentment seems comparably lax against Ingrid’s mayhem. But if it is not worse it is also not better. On a good day I can accept that happiness is rather illusive even in an easily fulfilled life. It comes in jolts rather than in waves. I can accept that success is an ambiguous concept that, if it comes to one at all, it comes at its own pace and stays at its own whims. I can accept that validation is not always valid. I can accept that depictions of love and family are idealized and belie the hardship of long-term maintenance. And I can accept that I have not and may never meet the most advocated-for standards of happiness and success in any age. That does not stop me from suddenly wanting everything I see, often solely because others have it, and letting it boil over into a rage that discolors every interaction into dialectical frameworks like have and have not, give and take, or privilege and rejection.

The intensity of one’s resentment depends on certain factors. It is possible to manage if one’s self-confidence and expectations are within moderate limits. Not all of us are so lucky. Some build a self-perception girded from top to bottom in total assurance and control. It is not untrue, but somewhat biased with little to no outside input but completely dependent upon outside validation. When that validation goes unmet, as is often the case because personal and outward wants are rarely so in sync, the assurance melts like ice cream before a flamethrower.

The resentful doesn’t lash out, but retreats into a barren and hopeless mental space. Modernity is at turns arbitrarily rigid and chaos writ large. The resentful, craving objectivity and order, seeks to establish one but imprisons himself at the lowest rung, having failed conclusively. The resentful proceeds to bury himself in his own narrative, the truth of which being entirely beside the point in favor of pure bile. You may reach the pinnacle of your abilities and prudently expend every ounce of your promise while I waste it on shortsighted pettiness, the resentful says to everyone and no one, but I will still be better than you. You may find that you are loved and wanted and depended upon and receive joy and safety in return while I will be perpetually discarded at the table of one, but I will still be better than you. You may go down into posterity for your talent or your charity or your bloodline while I will never be found, but I will still be better than you. You may be at ground zero of the atomic fallout while I languish at the edge of the blast making, perhaps, for a fossilization less desirable to whatever bipedal race has the misfortune of replacing us but I, by what reasoning I can’t determine right now, will still be better than you.

At a restaurant that Taylor frequents, a waiter introduces himself to Ingrid with the question “What is your biggest emotional wound?” He points over to a board on the wall. “It’s the question of the day.” It’s an odd flare of darkness from a Good Vibes zone. But it is entirely consistent with the film’s overall message. At Venice Beach, therapy is just another yoga and mental suffering has no place here and is not our problem. It’s that second point where the film truly fails, more or less suggesting that it is a damn good thing, too. At the same time, the film does get right, if by accident, that Ingrid’s suffering (emotional extremity, mental illness, whatever you want to call it) cannot be contained in an arc. That was the great lie of other, supposedly more humane, institutionalization films of the past—Girl, Interrupted, It’s Kind of a Funny Story, and so on—that treat a stay in a psychiatric ward as a rite of empowerment. Mental suffering is a long-term concern, by no means limited to the sufferer, none of which should be sidestepped as it was.

That is yet another better film that can be wrung out of the one we got instead. But, as ever, I can only work with what I have, and what I have is years of self-moderation and self-improvement barreling toward a conclusion that is no clearer now than it was 15 or so years ago. Occasionally some squishy watchwords—like perspective or wellness—come to have clearer meaning. But the process is slow. The middle ground is a temperate but soggy foundation. I sit on it in rotating barstool. Between me are two possible ends for this wild modernity I have to navigate. One is where everyone is given happiness; the other is where everyone, for their own good, is given none at all. I rent out my talents to the former when they are called for, I give my heart to the latter without condition. All the while I try not to sink.

And on that note …