A word from the former president of Uruguay.
To see the mind minding in real time.
To see clinging in all its subtle disguises, including the “having-seen-through-clinging” that can reinforce clinging.
To see the limitations of insight; to see insight as phenomenon.
To see the limit of limits; to witness the clinging in the search for limits.
To see the necessity and futility of wondering when the lesson will finally be learnt.
To see seeing while eating breakfast.
The new imprint we launched last year after everyone left Zero Books, which we’re calling Repeater, is finally ready to start releasing its first titles. In January, we’ll be publishing Dawn Foster’s Lean Out — a pretty fierce, punchy and to-the-point answer to Sheryl Sandberg’s business bestseller Lean In— and MKL Murphy’s The Isle of Minimus, which I can’t even begin to describe, though I’ve tried. Thank God I’m not in charge of marketing. (The whole book is a single sentence-long novel about a revolt in Las Vegas, but that doesn’t really do justice to the thing.)
Anyway, the books exist in physical form, and they’re looking beautiful. It’s wonderful to be working in a more traditional setup after the rather hurried and sometimes slapdash approach we had to take at Zero. Each books feels like an artefact. All covers are done by the artist Johnny Bull, and I think they’re nicely distinctive.
For me, the really wonderful thing about Repeater is that we’ve basically got free reign to publish what we truly believe in. Books that are probably a bad idea from a purely financial perspective are okay. Really difficult novels are okay. As long as one of us is willing to fight for it — take it on, edit it, and accept responsibility for its potential failure — then we’ll give it a shot. And to have Penguin Random House distributing our books in the USA is a big plus. These books actually have a chance.
The result of all this is a pretty eclectic list so far. I can’t wait to release more titles. We’ll be moving slowly at first, but 2016 will be a busy year nonetheless.
We’ll always be a bunch of amateurs, but it’s great to be here.
I’ve been reduced to silence lately, a strange and beautiful silence, something I can’t even begin to make sense of yet in writing. After a few more sesshin and some breakthroughs, I took a vow of silence — to get off Twitter, to stop posting on this blog, to avoid making any public comments on anything. To vanish as much as I could. So I moved from London to Buenos Aires and have been living a pleasant, quiet life here. I am very happy. I can only be ambiguous about this, mainly because I don’t feel like talking about it too much. There just needs to be a bit of context, because I have a feeling my posts from now on will go in a slightly different direction.
So, the thing is, I wanted to wait until everything felt more stable again before I came back to this blog. This was, in large part, because the last post I wrote, a three-thousand word essay that was extremely frank, turned out to be unpublishable. My friend read it before I posted and said, “You should consider not posting this.” And he was right. My sense of what was appropriate to share was all fucked up. I was just so happy, so blissful, that I’d lost all sense of social savvy. Unfortunately, the real world still exists, and not everyone wants to share in the love.
Things are calmer now, so I can go back to posting. There are plenty of emails I should reply to, as well. I still hate emails.
How we condescend to nihilists: how we infantilise their motives, reduce their lives to shells and hypocrisies. We treat the nihilist as we might a local madman whose visions we relish for their falsity, the drunkard on the corner no longer respectable for what he’s done to himself. We treasure the childish element in children, in dogs; we loathe it in anything else, and please ourselves with the castigation of overgrown innocents.
A nihilist doesn’t come to our door wearing some trademark hat of immorality: he is revealed over a long dinner, he comes into our world dressed like other friends, and we listen to his words with perked ears and mouthfuls of meat and opinion; we discern in the timbre of his voice a total nullity, a reluctance to love what we love. He is a nihilist.
We call him deluded, we tell him he can’t possibly believe in nothing. Having offered him such expert diagnosis, we then rebel at his indifference, we offer treatments at a bargain. But of course he will not change. We see in him the void of our convictions.
With every insolence we detect in his tics and grimaces, we grow nobler, we turn philosophical in our violence. We aim our rhetoric at ourselves: the public is our own uncertainty, the hyperbole of this stranger’s total nothingness assures us of our truths, glorifies our patience, justifies our traditions, hides the doubt that would leap out of the chasm.
Sometimes I feel as though I were headed toward some magnificent religious conversion. There has been a hell of a buildup: years of agonising over trifles, wrestling with doubt, unshakeable guilt, inexpressible insecurity. I have had phases of knowing I take everything for granted in the most impotent way, and stretches of comical obliviousness to my good fortune. For almost three decades I have felt the terror of a perfectly ordinary life, and longed for something radical, something undeniably transformative that would make sense of things. I have felt that I needed an excuse, or someone’s permission, to be charitable. I have wanted permission simply to exist, knowing nobody could grant me that comfort. The world has had no trouble forcing me to confront my own powerlessness, and, paradoxically, it has done it by showing me how seldom I choose to take matters into my own hands, how free I am. Being here is dizzyingly banal, and I have had a sense of my rootlessness since I can remember.
You would think that God would find a suitable convert in a character like me, but the religious epiphany has never happened. I’ve never, for example, found myself blinded while crossing the street, perhaps by the reflection of the sun in a bus window, and been seized by an intoxicating, all-encompassing love of everything around me that could only be explained by the presence of the divine. I’ve never discovered that foreign, but profoundly intimate, love burning in my blood, and felt like giving everything to those around me and devoting my life to Christ, or to some equivalently respectable prophet. And while I’ve been reduced to uncontrollable sobs of gratitude and awe while on silent meditation retreats, I never went back home thinking I’d found God.
I guess I have simply not seen that light. And pathetically, I’ve sought it. I have sought this trip to peace, that path to solace, ten guaranteed ways of connecting to God. Those early nights, when I was seven or eight, spent staring into the dark ceiling above me wondering if God could read my mind never went away completely: they changed, in my teenage rebellion, into a hatred of smaller, failed gods, a fear of adult men who seemed to want to dominate me, fraudulent fathers.
But the preoccupation with God, though inverted and focused on my failure to find a good reason to believe, was as strong as ever. It became a reverential fear of my own unconscious when I started reading Freud. Then it changed into a cocky belief that language, mere words, had served as the basis of whole civilisations, and that all meaning was an arbitrary human projection disguised as something natural, nature itself, inside the language of everyday discourse — the glorious undergraduate years. From there, my preoccupation with God, with meaning, shifted subtly into a smugly defeated, cynical appreciation of human folly. I could see patterns in the ways human beings were stupid, just as other wise men had done before me, so that simple rules of thumb were elevated to golden rules: if in doubt, assume someone just wants to be loved; always assume you don’t know everything because you don’t, and that way people won’t find you intolerable; women do not want you to be too nice to them, but that’s no excuse to be an unrepentant dick either, and anyway, men are the same; never expect others to be as grateful as you’d like them to be; also, people are listening to you with their own ears, not yours.
This was all my search for God, my search for something stable, some kind of truth, even if it meant finally paring my infinitely complex experience down to as dull an observation as: There is no ultimate truth. God himself must wrestle with this, so don’t ask him for help.
Is there something absurd about wondering why your magical religious conversion has been so unfairly delayed? Can we imagine Saul on the road to Damascus, blinded by heavenly light, kneeling before a figure who squeals with delight, “It’s me, Saul, Jesus, whom you have impatiently expected all this time!”?
And yet —
Over the last few months I’ve been trying a little experiment: taking high doses of vitamin B6 to give myself nightmares. On purpose. Over and over, every night — nightmares, nightmares, nightmares.
In case you’ve never heard about this, taking vitamin B6 in higher doses than usual over a few days can make your dreams extremely vivid. Like, super uncomfortably vivid. For some people, this makes it easier to remember their dreams, but it doesn’t give them nightmares. In my case, of course, elevated doses of B6 almost immediately induce horrific nightmares and nothing else. In 2013 I tried supplementing with B6 in this way, but I just couldn’t take it.
(Note to potential idiots who will want to try this themselves: I am not talking about taking 3g of B6 every day. I’m fairly sure that that would kill you. But if you take 300 mg for three days in a row, that should be enough for you to see what I’m talking about. I am not taking 300 mg a day anymore, but I did for a couple of weeks, which is probably bad enough.)
Any given night, recently, I will wake up between two and four times in a cold sweat. My nightmares tend to be slow-building and mostly atmospheric. I don’t have dreams of terrifying monsters who appear out of nowhere and declare their intention to kill me. Typically, my nightmares involve a growing sense of dread, false accusations, someone I hate’s insane opinions being pushed by powerful people as obvious and inarguable, the possibility of societal collapse looming somewhere in the background. I also have a lot of dreams about school, where for some reason I have to defend myself from unknown dangers. It’s all terribly symbolic, as I’m sure Freud would have agreed.
Contrast this to how it’s been historically. I’m fairly sure that before the last two years or so, I had perhaps one nightmare a year, two at most, and the rest of my dreams I was unlikely to remember at all.
So, why put myself through this torture? Don’t I want a good night’s sleep?
Yes, of course I want a good night’s sleep. The problem is that ever since I quit my medication, a few years ago, my sleep has been pretty crappy. Making sure I went to sleep in a cool room, in total darkness, helped a bit. I don’t do caffeine at all. I was following all the obvious advice, but still feeling like shit in the morning.\
One remarkable consequence of my supplementing with B6 in this perhaps excessive and dangerous way (don’t try it at home! there, now I can’t be blamed for anything) is that even though I often wake up during the night, and sometimes can’t fall back asleep until after about twenty minutes of calming down, I feel much more rested and relaxed in the mornings now than I did before I started this project.
But that’s not why am doing this. I’ve got some pseudoscientific hypotheses that I want to test.
Assuming there is such a thing as the unconscious in the sense that psychoanalysis (broadly speaking) conceives of it, then being able to induce nightmares seems an excellent way to explore the unresolved bullshit that lurks beneath my daily consciousness, informing it in ways I can’t understand. Or, more simply, let’s say I want to see what my fears and anxieties actually look like. This is also a fun way to bring to life a concept I played with in my beautifully written and unforgettable short story “That Lombardi Thing” in my amazing and rewarding and life-affirming collection, What Precision, Such Restraint, which you should buy and read today.
This is all in the name of research. For my next book, of course. I won’t go into detail about that now. But that’s what this is all for: I’m putting myself through strange self-experiments for the next book, all of them involving trying to deal with my personal psychological shit. It’s a lot of fun! It also means I get to procrastinate a little longer, as far as actually writing goes.
I will mention now, however, that over time the nightmares have become quite a lot rarer, less intense, and far easier to recover from. I seem to be having more “vivid dreams “in general and fewer nightmares specifically. So that’s pretty interesting. Also, the quality of my sleep just keeps getting better, even though I’m sleeping fewer hours per night. As someone who, historically, has been extremely fussy and even obnoxious about needing to sleep a minimum of eight or nine hours a day, I find this really cool.
It finally happened: I bought a PlayStation 4.
This is momentous news! Mainly, because I haven’t actually played video games in years and I don’t care about gamers much (except for my old housemate, Rob, who was cool) and the whole #GamerGate thing was really off-putting (my stance: if you threaten someone online to hurt or rape them, you’re automatically wrong). Sure, I’ve tried to get into them again a few times, but never with any success. As video games have become prettier and more “social” I’ve become less interested, because I am a grump. At heart, I’m a sucker for those games with shitty graphics that you have to get to know intimately, trying to master the mechanics like a dweeb but never being able to go very far — which is why roguelikes are so great for me. I never give a shit about games like Assassin’s Creed or Call of Duty or even World of Warcraft, which once upon a time I would’ve assumed might be up my street.
But, even though it was 2014 that was the year of fun, it’s not like I’m not trying to have fun anymore. And it’s hard to have fun if you can’t shut down your brain. Nothing says “mindless, pointless activity” like playing video games.
But this has been a surprisingly emotional decision. The first time I tried to buy the PS4, I actually walked for about 45 minutes to get to a place where I assumed they would sell PlayStation 4s (they did!), waited in line, and decided at the very last minute not to go ahead with my terrifying purchase. Then, the next day, I went back and bought it. No idea what that wavering was all about. In fact, over the last few months I’ve wondered repeatedly whether to buy a games console again, then told myself I would, but never did.
This time, I even bought a copy of the new Assassin’s Creed! Which I am fairly sure I will not play for more than a few hours at most.
I spent like 15 minutes trying to figure out how to insert a game disc into the PlayStation 4. I had to Google it, and then I realized that the disc tray doesn’t come out like on an old-school computer. You can just stick the disc into the slot directly. This is how out of touch I’ve become.
But I’ve done it. I bought myself a video game console. Take that, strange ideal of remaining a Luddite forever!
But it’s not particularly interesting. However, the New Yorker article I link to at the start of the column (“Ghosts in the Stacks”) is worth reading.
It really irks me when people say they love books. They LOVE books. They LOVE reading. They put “VORACIOUS READER” on their Twitter bio. They want you to know how much they love books, because it’s part of who they think they are. And it bugs me that it’s such a fetish.
This column is really just an exercise in reductio ad absurdum. “Well why don’t you just MARRY your books, then?”