“The permanent misfits are those who because of a lack of talent or some irreparable defect in body or mind cannot do the one thing for which their whole being craves. No achievement, however spectacular, in other fields can give them a sense of fulfillment. Whatever they undertake becomes a passionate pursuit; but they never arrive, never pause. They demonstrate the fact that we can never have enough of that which we really do not want, and that we run fastest and farthest when we run from ourselves.
The permanent misfits can find salvation only in a complete separation from the self; and they usually find it by losing themselves in the compact collectivity of a mass movement. By renouncing individual will, judgment and ambition, and dedicating all their powers to the service of an eternal cause, they are at last lifted off the endless treadmill which can never lead them to fulfillment.
The most incurably frustrated--and, therefore, the most vehement--among the permanent misfits are those with an unfulfilled craving for creative work. Both those who try to write, paint, compose, etcetera, and fail decisively, and those who after tasting the elation of creativeness feel a drying up of the creative flow within and know that never again will they produce aught worth while, are alike in the grip of a desperate passion. Neither fame nor power nor riches nor even monumental achievements in other fields can still their hunger. Eve the wholehearted dedication to a holy cause does not always cure them. Their unappeased hunger persists and they are likely to become the most violent extremists in the service of their holy cause.”
Eric Hoffer - The True Believer
And then there was Hyde…
I’ve written about the experience of The Hyde School endlessly on this blog and will no doubt write about it far more endlessly before long, so I’ll simply link to this particular blogpost and move on...
When I arrived at college, I was, for all intents, a full-on radical. On 9/12, three weeks after college began, I was dominating the classroom discussion to the rage of many peers about how the Bush administration would exploit yesterday’s tragedy for its own personal gain. As it turned out, I was absolutely right, and yet, something was very very wrong.
Without going into detail, the years of Hyde left me profoundly, psychotically depressed. If those last three years happened, then any other nightmare could come true - and there were times when they genuinely seemed to do so. I did my pathetic best to fit in among other students and carry on in circumstances which easily could have killed me, but I was anything but able to do so functionally, and it’s amazing that I got through college in one piece - because that first year-and-a-half was played by the seat of my pants. In my politlcally half-informed state (better, no doubt, than the quarter-informedness of many peers) I might have become a political radical as a way of reclaiming my identity, but it didn’t work - I didn’t believe in my own beliefs, and my mind was so far gone that it wasn’t even a good social outlet for me. I felt as irreparably broken as I ever have in my life, and as I ever hope to feel. In retrospect, I don’t think I believed I’d live to see the venerable age of thirty-two at which I now reside rather comfortably. And I surely didn’t think a fairly harmonious relationship with my family was possible. But here we are…
But what saved me was politics. Music, perhaps, drove me mad. But an interest in politics, an interest in certainties based on facts, gave me the secure ground on which I was able to rebuild myself. We all need certainties, and for some people, theological certainties are enough. But what good is faith when faith can so easily be demolished by informed argument?
And what is radical politics but a new kind of theological certainty? At its base, every kind of radicalism operates on a one-sentence explanation of the world - the rich don’t owe the poor anything, or the government owes its citizens everything, or governments around the world must be overthrown - and then suits the facts to fit its theory.
When you’re involved in the arts, the very act of being a normal, boring liberal makes you sound to most other artists like Mussolini. It’s a phenomenon I first noticed in college. I can’t deny that I have an artist’s temperament, but I differ from most artists in that I’ve spent my adult life regretting that. Most people in the arts get involved because they’re normal people who are scared to death of being boring. But I, who’ve had so many brushes with mental illness, long for nothing more than to be normal.
The problem with only associating with other artists is the same problem as when you only associate with people of your own job or creed or interests. You’re shielded completely from any reality that is not your own, and the myopia of your mind breeds like rats. If you’re sheltered within a cocoon of your own beliefs without having them challenged, your mind atrophies and starts to rot.
During 2005-2006, I lived in the Negev desert with a bunch of artists and hippies. I was certainly somewhat closer to the American Center in those years, a sort of Tony Blairite liberal hawk, and one of the only people on the entire program/artists’ colony that was unabashedly pro-Israel. I swore to them that there was an ocean of gulf between me and right-wing nuts, I gave them a battery of facts to try to prove it, but nobody believed me.
I was also one of the only people on the program who knew anything about Judaism. Unlike all those hippies who wanted to come to Israel to connect to Jewish roots their families never showed them, I went to Israel as a kind of rite of passage. My parents both regretted never living there, and they were willing to give me the money to live there rather than among the ‘goyim’ as I did during college. I’m sure they were slightly horrified that most of my friends weren’t Jewish, and were scared that Judaism was going to lose me as it loses half its practitioners in America. Perhaps, so they reasoned, I’d meet a Jewish girl over there and stay ‘within the fold’ for the rest of my life - with the added benefit that I might stay in Israel, and they’d be relieved of regularly dealing with me. I certainly fell in love while I was living there (with a girl much more right-wing than I was), but it was absolutely not to be.
I left Israel dejected on all fronts - broken friendships, unrequited love, blocked as a composer (a block that never really lifted…), too depressed to hold a job, and having to move back in with my parents in Pikesville - the one town to which I swore I’d never return.
As a learning disabled, mentally slightly unhinged, eccentric, you don’t connect well with “normal” people - no matter how much you aspire to be like them. I knew I was smarter than 999 of 1000 kids I met growing up, and yet here I am, stuck in a job that’s barely a job while many of those Pikesville kids go on to pinnacles of achievement in America (more on that later…). Temperamentally, if I connect with anyone, it’s to the more bohemian types who believe that concepts like career and family are imaginary constructs which don’t really matter.
But they do matter, they matter very much. We are human beings, biologically constructed to keep ourselves occupied with ambition. Ambition gives us a reason to plow through the difficulties which we encounter every day, if we think of the source of ambition as just a distracting ‘construct’, what reason have we to get out of bed in the morning? Being a ‘bohemian’ artist type is not embracing a way of life, it’s a justification for not having one.
And yet, you ought to have enormous sympathy for people with this type of problem, of which, of course, I’m one. Because the temptation to fall for simple explanations and easy outs is especially strong. Rather than blame ourselves for failing to live up to life, it’s easier to blame life. And perhaps we should blame life, because life is goddamn hard. The problem is not that people blame life, but that they embrace quick-fix cures for life’s hardships that will only make life worse.
And yet I can’t deny my own hunger for those quick-fix cures has never slaked. I somehow end up at Red Emma’s a couple times a week, and I invariably feel like Travis Bickle when he drives his Taxi through Times Square, longing for the very thing which disgusts him. I sometimes find myself driving through Upper Park Heights on Saturdays and see shul-goers walking around the neighborhoods. Both these people seem so at peace with their surroundings, not giving a shit what anybody outside their community thinks of them, shielding themselves from the world’s judgement. I wish I had the lack of self-consciousness to do the same, and even if this appearance is just a mirage, I envy them their mirage.