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Anti-Nihilism Device

I’ve been reading The Opposite of Loneliness by the late Marina Keegan. She was a Yale grad who died in a car accident shortly after her graduation. The book is a collection of her short stories and essays.

One thing that stands out about her essays is the sense of isolation she felt. But I won’t go there in this post. Instead, I want to share a line that struck me in her little essay, Putting the ‘Fun’ back in Eschatology. You can read the whole thing online HERE.

She is wrestling with things she’s learning in her science classes – mainly with the ‘fact’ that the sun is eventually going to burn out and die. She comforts herself with thoughts that NASA will eventually perfect space travel and come up with solutions for living in a sunless galaxy. Here’s the quote:

It’s natural selection on a Universal scale. “The Origin of the Aliens,” one could say; a survival of the fittest planets. Planets capable of evolving life intelligent enough to leave before the lights go out. I suppose that without a God, NASA is my anti-nihilism.

In his novel Generation X, Douglas Coupland coins the term “anti-victim device.” An anti-victim device, according to Coupland, is “a small fashion accessory worn on an otherwise conservative outfit which announces to the world that one still has a spark of individuality burning inside.” Think of a conservative Southern girl with a lower-back tattoo or a nose ring. She may be straight laced in a lot of ways, but watch out. She’s got a wild side too. She’s taking jiu-jitsu lessons too.

Keegan saw NASA as her anti-nihilism device. That’s different from an anti-victim device, but kind of similar too. An anti-nihilism device says, ‘Yeah, I know the sun is going to burn out and everything’s going to freeze, but I’ve got hope.’ And notice she qualifies this with the key phrase – “without God.”

Without God, everyone has to have anti-nihilism devices. Christians tends to call these things idols. An anti-nihilism device is the thing you go to for ultimate hope when you realize there’s really nothing to live for. No reason not to be an anarchist, a nihilist, to just fall into total despair and do whatever you want.

Chuck Palahniuk has started calling himself an ‘optimistic nihilist.’ That’s a nihilist with blinders on. King Solomon was right folks. Without God, life under the sun doesn’t make sense. And the sun eventually burns out anyway. Some folks need to turn NASA into God. Others turn their their careers, their families, their favorite sports team, whatever into gods. They have to have something to brighten their day when the sun is burning out.

Learning Plots as a Way of Understanding History (and Ourselves)

In an essay in his book, Stranger than Fiction, Chuck Palahniuk outlines two benefits of writing: 1) It can help you make sense, and take ownership, of your own life and 2) it can help you better understand history (which in turn can help you understand how history is shaped).

One of the money lines from the quote below is, “if we’re too lazy to learn history history, maybe we can learn plots. Maybe our sense of ‘been there, done that’ will save us from declaring the next war.” Aside from that, the idea that forcing yourself to unpack ideas and pictures of the world beyond the detail we’re accustomed to thinking about is helpful. Maybe you really should try to imagine what a happy version of yourself would look like (and thereby try to figure out what you’re lacking in the present).

Controlling the story of your past—recording and exhausting it—that skill might allow us to move into the future and write that story. Instead of letting life just happen, we could outline our own personal plot. We’ll learn the craft we’ll need to accept that responsibility. We’ll develop our ability to imagine in finer and finer detail. We can more exactly focus on what we want to accomplish, to attain, to become.

You want to be happy? You want to be at peace? You want to be healthy?

As any good writer would tell you: unpack “happy.” What does it look like? How can you demonstrate happiness on the page—that vague, abstract concept. Show, don’t tell. Show me “happiness.”

In this way, learning to write means learning to look at yourself and the world in extreme close-up. If nothing else, maybe learning how to write will force us to take a closer look at everything, to really see it—if only in order to reproduce it on a page.

Maybe with a little more effort and reflection, you can live the kind of life story a literary agent would want to read.

Or maybe . . . just maybe this whole process is our training wheels toward something bigger. If we can reflect and know our lives, we might stay awake and shape our futures. Our flood of books and movies—of plots and story arcs—they might be mankind’s way to be aware of all our history. Our options. All the ways we’ve tried in the past to fix the world.

We have it all: the time, the technology, the experience, the education, and the disgust.

What if they made a movie about a war and nobody came?

If we’re too lazy to learn history history, maybe we can learn plots. Maybe our sense of “been there, done that” will save us from declaring the next war. If war won’t “play,” then why bother? If war can’t “find an audience.” If we see that war “tanks” after the opening weekend, then no one will green-light another one. Not for a long, long time.

Then, finally, what if some writer comes up with an entirely new story? A new and compelling way to live, before . . .

Sorry, your seven minutes is up.

You can read the entire essay (entitled You Are Here) HERE.

The Painter Had Disappeared

Chuck Palahniuk has some brilliant essays on writing-craft over at LitReactor. I’ve read through them all multiple times at this point. Palahniuk is giving advice for writing, but it’s amazing how much of it I’ve applied to myself as a preacher as well. I’ve learned as much (maybe more) about communicating from him as anyone else.

In this essay, he is making the point that when the author (painter in this case) applies his craft well, he disappears (I’ll give some counterpoint to that in the next post). I would add that the same is the case for a good sermon – the preacher disappears:

Another Christmas window story. Almost every morning, I eat breakfast in the same diner, and this morning a man was painting the windows with Christmas designs. Snowmen. Snowflakes. Bells. Santa Claus. He stood outside on the sidewalk, painting in the freezing cold, his breath steaming, alternating brushes and rollers with different colors of paint. Inside the diner, the customers and servers watched as he layered red and white and blue paint on the outside of the big windows. Behind him the rain changed to snow, falling sideways in the wind. The painter’s hair was all different colors of gray, and his face was slack and wrinkled as the empty ass of his jeans. Between colors, he’d stop to drink something out of a paper cup.

Watching him from inside, eating eggs and toast, somebody said it was sad. This customer said the man was probably a failed artist. It was probably whiskey in the cup. He probably had a studio full of failed paintings and now made his living decorating cheesy restaurant and grocery store windows. Just sad, sad, sad.

This painter guy kept putting up the colors. All the white “snow,” first. Then some fields of red and green. Then some black outlines that made the color shapes into Xmas stockings and trees. A server walked around, pouring coffee for people, and said, “That’s so neat. I wish I could do that…”

And whether we envied or pitied this guy in the cold, he kept painting. Adding details and layers of color. And I’m not sure when it happened, but at some moment he wasn’t there. The pictures themselves were so rich, they filled the windows so well, the colors so bright, that the painter had left. Whether he was a failure or a hero. He’d
disappeared, gone off to wherever, and all we were seeing was his work.

From Chuck Palahniuk’s essay, Thirteen Writing Tips

52 Novels (12): Survivor

My goal is to read a novel a week in 2015. I’ve made it to 12.

-Chuck Palahniuk, Survivor

Look in my eyes. What do you see? The cult of personality.

From a suicide cult, to the cult of celebrity, to the cult of personality. An ironic and fitting book for someone whose unofficial website is called The Cult.

This book will remain special to me for at least one reason. My wife got an autographed first-edition for me as a birthday present.

For me, it’s a book that will take time to appreciate. I didn’t enjoy it so much in the process of reading it. But, as I take time to reflect, I realize that it’s a very clever story with some interesting pictures of the world we live in.

The plot surrounds one of, if not the only, remaining member of a religious cult that committed mass suicide. We follow him on his journey from cult member, to housekeeper for the stars, to suicide hotline proprietor (who encourages people to commit suicide), to unwitting follower of a young woman with some sort of prophetic gift, to plane hijacker.

Some of the more interesting scenes, for me, involved the main Character (Tender Branson) receiving psychological counseling. Along the way, we learn quite a bit about the DSM (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). I studied the DSM a bit in college (I took 15 hours of psychology), which made it easy to giggle a bit while reading the book. Tender figures out that he can just study the manual and pretend to have the disorders it describes. As long as he does this his therapist will never actually ask him any really significant questions (since she’s obsessed with DSM diagnoses). I suppose that’s the big ’emotional scam’ of the book – Tender acts like everything in the world is wrong with him so that he won’t have to deal with what’s actually wrong with him. In the end it bites him. He’s escaped the life of the suicide cult, but he can’t escape the cult of personality.

He becomes one himself. As the last surviving member of the suicide cult, he becomes a spiritual celebrity and guru – even though he has nothing to teach, or even say. What really happens is that he becomes the puppet of a big corporation who is in the business of making celebrities. He just reads the script and plays the part. (Playing the part, by the way, includes taking steroids, amphetamines, and all sorts of other things).

Finally, as his celebrity is waning, he falls victim to a prophetic crush. The girl he desires turns out to be a dreamer of prophetic dreams. One of those dreams spells his doom, though he doesn’t realize it until it’s too late. Cue Living Colour.

52 Novels (8): Choke

My goal is to read 52 novels in 2015. I’ve made it to 8…

Choke, by Chuck Palahniuk

Choke is not my favorite Palahniuk book (so far that would be Fight Club), but the plot is spectacular. The story is a prime example of what Palahniuk calls an ’emotional scam.’ An emotional scam is basically what a person convinces himself he needs in order to be fulfilled or affirmed or secure. The main character here is a choker. He feigns choking in restaurants so that other diners will perform the Heimlich on him.

This serves several purposes: First, he will experience the embrace of arms wrapped around him. He will enjoy the moment of having others surround him with unwavering attention. He will be told time and time again, ‘Everything’s going to be alright. You’re fine. Don’t worry.’

Second, he is setting up a situation in which dozens of people can become heroes. For the rest of their lives, they will be able to brag about the moment when they saved another human being’s life. He is like a messiah who is saving people by allowing them to save him.

Third, they will inevitably take an interest in his hard luck life. They will send him birthday cards on the anniversary of his salvation; the anniversary of his new birth. And there will be money in those cards.

The problem with all of this is that it is an emotional scam that is bound to be found out eventually. What will happen when two of his saviors meet each other? And what will happen when he really does begin to believe that he is a legitimate sort of messiah? That’s the story in a nutshell. It’s one of the better concepts for a story I think I’ve ever come across.

I’m left asking about my own emotional scam.