I have these moments when it seems to me that much of the edifice of the western humanities for a great, long time now has been a matter of desperately desiring that life be something other than what it quite obviously is.
There exists a kind of covertly moral prohibition against accepting anything. “Yes, but why should I accept it?” is seen to be the battle cry of the bravest hero, in everything from marital matters to cancer treatment. it is this cry that earns the cultural gold medal, that inspires admiration and reverie alike.
“No, no, don’t you accept it!” everyone responds silently, in their heart of hearts.
Unstated in all of this are two beliefs that can’t be spoken. First, that if others don’t have to accept it, than neither, in fact, do we. Our mothers all told us not to jump off cliffs, but in fact, we’re wont to do so if it means that we don’t have to take our medicine. This brings us to the second belief, which is that by refusing to accept things, we forestall what wasn’t actually inevitable after all and will at some point arrive either at salvation or utopia instead, as a reward for our patience and self-imposed long-suffering.
To accept is to concede, to resign, to submit, and a thousand other things.
And yet—it’s all bullshit. Humanness is what it is. No amount of desire, of lofty prose, of surgically astute poetry has ever changed this. All of this dialogue in western criticism about what the arts and letters “inspire” us to think, feel, grapple with—the very idea of “grappling with” desire and acceptance in the first place, comes down to a deceptively simple premise:
That there is deep value in rejecting the truth about life.
There isn’t. There is heroin and morphine in rejecting the truth about life, and that’s about it. And eventually the chickens always come home to roost. Your fortune, your extramarital affair, your gold medal at the Olympics, your award-winning Ph.D. dissertation, your string of highly successful parties, your string of highly successful perfect-ten lays, whatever—will not save you from:
- Living a fundamentally human, which is to say, phenomenologically claustrophobic, life
- Dying at the end of it
- Being largely forgotten as an individual, as the actual you, shortly thereafter
There is so much wisdom in what Buddhism proposes here. And of course, it has always been the case that such wisdom is difficult to internalize, as desire is every bit as human as death is.
But it seems to me that the west at some point went miles farther, and in the opposite direction—not just to fail to accept the futility of desire or to achieve its transcendence, but in fact to construct endless blocks of cultural scaffolding and lifetimes of twee rationalizations about how burning desire and the refusal to accept things are, in fact, objective and meaningful goods in an individual’s life-course.
They’re not. They’re an evolutionary adaptation, clearly, for the survival of the species. I suppose that in some way it’s reasonable to say that it’s a good thing we have them inasmuch as they enable us to continue to survive. But it’s folly to embrace them personally, as some sort of salvation, or to actually seek out and spend one’s time reflecting on—”grappling with,” as it were—meditations on desire and the rejection of acceptance.
What a waste of time.
I never thought I’d go off literature altogether, but the banal, overwrought sensationalizing of the “human condition” in the western canon is nothing more than the same obvious and pointless note, played over and over again, by ornery and unruly children who don’t know what’s good for them and won’t go to bed.
The human condition is what it is. We all know what it is; we’re living it, briefly. That’s it. It’s worth commemorating, but no more than that.
Accept it and be done with it. Write about it if you must (hey, some of us do this a lot), but not in that way that makes the critics swoon. The critics are all in denial.