“I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive.”
Thus spake Henry Miller on the first page of his first book, Tropic of Cancer, in 1934—no doubt one of the reasons it was banned from publication in the United States until 1961. Miller was a square wheel and not the kind of influence a country trying to get things rolling after a Great Depression wanted folks being exposed to. The book was deemed pornographic as well, but the social criticism was more risqué than the gratuitous sex.
Today, as we continue to work our way out of the Great Recession, many of Miller’s Cancer sentiments still ring true as we mark the 50th anniversary of its appearance on our shores. Materialism is unwise. Over-consumption is destructive. And the most recent incarnation of American Capitalism is simply a diagonally slit wrist that we’re watching bleed out.
Deep down, we all know this, but we can’t seem to muster the craw or the courage to square our wheels. It makes me think back to a time and place in my life when people tried.
It was Austin, Texas in the early 1990s and I lived on my friend Jerry’s couch in a duplex in Hyde Park for nine months. I kept odd jobs and odder hours, usually scheduled around manic chess marathons and bleary-eyed, late-night philosophical volleys. The debates always started with a lob, but three hours later we were both trying to maintain serve with obscure, paraphrased excerpts from Nietzche or clever parries from Kierkegaard, Camus, or Sartre.
Jerry had an uncanny knowledge of local happy hours at restaurants that offered free finger foods for the thirsty souls that frequented their establishments to imbibe alcohol. So we would show up, buy one beer each and then just eat; it was a nice dinner 2-3 days a week.
When the hinges of our toilet seat broke off, we simply hung the lid on the bathroom door. Using our water closet involved placing the lid on the toilet bowl and balancing yourself.
I barely had a pot to piss in, and it was one of the happiest times in my life. I didn’t have a mortgage or car payments or credit cards. I wasn’t prostituting myself in some pathetic, cubicled slog and I wasn’t a stock-optioned salary-slave with no place to go but up the arse of a corporate colossus slinking after ill-begotten profit margins.
I was free. I could loaf. And I could sit still and think.
Richard Linklater’s Slacker touched on the phenomena, but conveyed the weirder aspects of the process more than the wisdom. In fact, the movie reinforced the stereotype that a “slacker” was a young adult whose existence was characterized by apathy, lack of ambition and general aimlessness. The derogatory connotations masked the profounder aspects of what was really happening. We weren’t apathetic or lazy or aimless; we just had serious reservations about the catalogue of ways people demeaned themselves for money.
Austin in the early 1990s was a place where “Atlases” came to shrug. Moms and dads across the state were sending their kids off to UT or Southwest Texas State for vocational training, but some of stuff in some of the books was leaving an impression. And a significant number of students theretofore scheduled to become normal, traditionally successful yuppies were garnering (1) levels of awareness that were counterproductive, (2) penchants for self-examination that were downright dangerous, and (3) a contrarian vein that approached anarchy.
Resignation, obsequiousness and utter convention were out. Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf had observed that to think was to undermine and, with our educations in hand, that’s exactly what we did. We didn’t have much practice and our non-conformist leanings were almost unanimously discouraged by real “grown-ups,” but once we thought for ourselves for a summery instant we realized the entire phony system wasn’t worth engaging in, struggling for or reducing ourselves to. So we stayed in Austin and held out as long as we could (but not nearly long enough).
I bring this up because my happy “shrug” in Austin comes to mind a lot lately, especially when I see Tea Partiers hold up signs that say “Who is John Galt?” For the record, I like Ayn Rand, but she made a mistake in Atlas Shrugged when she assumed that talented folks and great innovators would automatically be capitalists. Rand had too much reverence for the “system” and naively suggested that capitalist Atlases might shrug, but that’s never been the case–because they always benefited too much from the “system.” Rand might as well have titled the book Robber-Barron Shrugged or Industrialist Shrugged or When Corporations Shrug.
History clearly suggests that the “shruggers” were never members of the upper capitalist caste. They were hardscrabble types, common people, beset-upon folks that refused to surrender to the robber-barons, industrialists, and corporatists who solemnly and repeatedly endeavored to relegate them to capitalism’s dirty, secret byproduct: a powerless heap of the collaterally damaged and chronically disenfranchised (also known as the middle and lower classes).
So take notes, Ayn. A union work stoppage is John Galt. A strain of talented college graduates refusing to become cogs in a soul-crushing, environment-ravaging corporate machine is John Galt. And collection of Egyptian protestors speaking truth to power in Tahir Square is also John Galt.
America is in trouble because we don’t believe in it anymore. And we shouldn’t. But not because our president is black or because our government is too big or we pay too many taxes. It’s because we no longer operate under the precept of collective self-interest. We have self-interest down to a science and regard self-indulgence as the fulfillment of the American Dream. But “collective” no longer has a place in the equation because it’s an unpleasantness that the have-mores and the have-mosts pay legions of lawmakers and lobbyists to help them avoid. Then they enthusiastically hail unrestrained, unregulated free markets as the amazing cure-all for our times and utilize their government-sanctioned privileges to remove the 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th and 7th wrung on every ten foot stretch of the socio-economic ladder so that we are systemically and perpetually beholden to them if we are inclined to climb.
The ladder is still navigable if you’re connected, related, incredibly lucky or prepared to jump real high when they tell you to—but if you question their authority or resent their entitlement, you’re an extremist, a radical or an insurrectionist who must be quashed.
As I think Henry Miller would have colorfully noted, unrestrained capitalism, corporatism, materialism and our destructive way of life in general are not too big to fail and we’re not so small that we won’t survive when they do.
The have-mores and the have-mosts who control everything in this country are a conglomerate version of Hosni Mubarak. Different crime scene, different M.O., but same criminality. And obligatorily shouldering their burden simply makes us enablers.
So become a square wheel. Slack a little. Take some time and think.
The mortgage, the car and the flat-screen can wait.
There’s always surrender. But it should be a last resort. Not our chief priority.