Clement Alexander

Notes on Shallows and Honesty


ISSUE 31 | STRATEGIES OF TOGETHERNESS | AUG 2013

I used to think of

“the problem of interacting with normal people”

or

“the problem of having superficial interactions”

or (a more recent and humbler formulation)

“the problem of interacting with people who don’t know me”

as a problem of “having the right things to say,” of fumbling along at a frivolous verbal game that others had practiced much more than me, that was natural for them but arduous for me. I might have said in my younger, more snobbish years that it was a problem of being able to talk about sports and celebrities.

(“People who know me” being shorthand or euphemistic for something (self-deprecating) like “who can forgive me” or (ambiguously arrogant) like “who know how to talk to me” / “are trained in me.”)

1. A Disaster of a First Meeting (Being Closed)

I recently rented a room in a Mexico City apartment of six people, during a period (unless it’s always like this) when roommates were continuously moving in and out. I lived there for the second of my two months in that city. One of the roommates, who was packing up and moving bits at a time until he finally moved out at the end of the week, was Cris. He was a sculptor, and the awkwardness and shyness he manifested in our first few interactions made me skeptical about the quality of his art, which I never in fact saw. In our first conversation, Cris asked me, as one might, what I was doing in Mexico City. I had never come up with a succinct answer to that question, so I said something like “Oh, just living here for a bit.”

“So for vacation? For work?” he asked. We were talking in English, because he had mentioned that he wanted to practice. It was also the morning, earlier than I usually feel like talking to anyone, and I was feeling shy, so I hung back in the safety of a language where I could pick my words carefully. “Well, I am working a bit,” and I told him that I was giving private English lessons for a couple of students. He asked if he could take lessons from me. That struck me as an extremely stressful proposition. Teaching depends very much on presenting a specific face of myself, and I did not want to think about someone witnessing the transition from any of my various other faces to my teaching face and back. After some waffling—I really would have liked to have to go do something, fetch something from my room or something, and use a few minutes in private to strategize, but we lacked the shared language for me to excuse myself tactfully, so I had to sit there and cogitate in public—I suggested that we have a language exchange, an hour of Spanish for an hour of English.

“Now?” he asked. I wanted to be early for my lesson that afternoon (though I made the mistake of telling him what time it started, rather than when I wanted to be there, crucially licensing him to form his own opinion about when I really needed to leave), and just felt like getting out of there, so we arranged to meet back at the apartment around six. When evening came I got held up or wasn’t in the mood, so it didn’t happen. A few days later we had an impromptu English-speaking session, and exchanged a few casual words (mostly in English, as both a gesture of generosity or apology, and from stinginess of effort) over the next month.

All this is to demonstrate a person with whom I was decidedly not open from the start; conditions did not lend themselves to self-revealing.

2. A Lingering Hiddenness

I think of an old friend of mine, Jamie. I was afraid to get high with her, because when I get high I get (in a sense) more honest and less inhibited in my thoughts. What I say out loud to people is another matter, because self-consciousness is there as it always is, but the thoughts insist themselves, and insist upon their formulation as insightful and important; so that, especially in the distracted flurry of other thoughts petitioning for attention, it becomes impossible to come up with any alternate expression of them. In particular, an expression that would be more tactful or suited for someone who tends to understand the same words differently. I did not think the differences I saw between this friend and me were problems per se, nor that they made either one of us better than the other, nor that they prevented us from enjoying and learning from each other. But it also seemed best to keep some things to myself rather than draw attention to those differences. Or phrase them with great rhetorical premeditation.

3. Normal vs. Thoughtful, and Another Strange Assumption

The difference I felt was rooted in the fact that I always somehow thought of my friend as more normal than I. Which is strange in itself, since from what I knew she had a rather interestingly traumatic entrance into the adolescent and adult social world, and I usually can’t help assuming that anyone who seems to be normal now must be so because they had a comfortable, socially smooth, untraumatic adolescence. I unthinkingly and persistently posited a dichotomy between “normal” and “thoughtful,” and that “thoughtfulness” is caused by some variety of trauma. For me this trauma seemed to consist mostly in being lonely as a teenager. (I never said it had to be an interesting trauma.) But I still don’t know what makes people into what they later are.

An Impossible Apology to Impossible People

(Look, if you’re a “normal” person, or if you think maybe you’d fall under my concept of “normal,” then I am sorry for stereotyping you, dehumanizing you, othering you, whatever I am doing. For now I’ll just carry on with the descriptive description, and figure out later how to make you not hate me. Because, as I hope to explain and convince myself, this is not a good reason for you to hate me. But I do hope that if you end up not hating me—you could reach the same decision for different reasons—it will be because you have reflected on one reason to hate me—that I am simply egotistical and arrogant to even set up such a distinction, or in other words, that I have a valid category of badness under which you might legitimately fall—and decided that that particular reason is cowardly and stupid.)

4.

Two examples of what it’s like when I am not afraid.

a. Speaking My Pettiness

On the subway the other day I had the following shallow thought about the difference between Mexico City and New York: “The problem with the girls here is they all stand out too much. It’s distracting. In the Distrito Federal, not only could you count on them all being at least moderately pretty, but they’re all pretty in roughly the same way. There’s a coherence, they can blend to create a pleasant atmosphere.” Crude maybe, but I felt it. A few conversations went by in which I thought of sharing this thought but refrained, until I related it to one friend, a girl, comfortably and without predeliberation. What was I afraid of here? It’s obvious: appearing sexist, appearing to be someone who objectifies women in a harmful or despicable way. Nevertheless I thought it. Not to mention that I don’t totally disavow objectifying people. I couldn’t believe in fashion (not to speak of beauty) without objectifying people, and I believe in fashion.

b. Speaking my essence

A few days after Cris moved out of the Mexico City apartment, Nic moved in. The night we met, Nic was in the kitchen when I came home and greeted me with a slightly over-enunciated but perfect-English “Hey, man.” Mandy, the roommate who held the lease, was also there. Mandy, lighthearted and queenly, and who barely spoke English, dictated that I must talk in Spanish to Nic and he talk in English to me, so that we could both practice. (People look strange when speaking a language they don’t know. They open their mouths robotically and throw words at you, words that they hope mean something to you even while they mean nothing to them.) Nic projected warmth and openmindedness. His demeanor and my lack of freedom in the matter—Mandy, bless your imperiousness, though it grated me sometimes—induced me to speak unguardedly even in my rudimentary Spanish. Our conversation started with the usual sort of questions—”What are you doing here?” etc.—but rather than citing plausibly comprehensible data for the conventional biographical fields (job, hobbies, place of origin) I found myself speaking frankly about how I live, why I do what I do, my best guess as to my purpose in the world.

5. What Am I Afraid of? One Thing I Am Afraid of. (Being Afraid of Being Known)

But of course the facts about oneself (whether superficial or essential) that one is afraid of revealing in any given interaction need not be, an often are not, in the explicit propositional content of one’s speech. (An exchange I used to have sometimes: “But Clement, you never talk about yourself.” My response, somewhat bewildered: “I am in a room. It’s a little dark. I had class today…. “) And after all that is one of the things that are so scary about speaking: that the part you have the most control over—the words you use—determines such a small fraction of what the other person might learn about you.

At one point I thought that I could be very open and honest with people by and unabashedly and unabridgedly answering any question put to me. Discoursing on my perceptions and opinions, telling whatever personal stories or self-diagnoses seemed the least bit pertinent. When someone surprised me by responding to such a torrent with “So do you ever ask questions?” I realized that asking can be a much greater risk than answering. In asking someone a question, you are declaring a number of things: what you want to know; what you want to know from this person specifically; what you think they might know; that they or something they said brought a particular question to mind for you. In short, all kinds of information about what sort of person you are, and what sort of person you think the other is. Or, from another angle, all kinds of information on which the other might incorrectly guess what kind of person you are. It is scary for someone to know what you’re like, but it is also scary for someone to get wrong ideas about you. And I for one usually have more and firmer ideas about what I’m not like than what I’m like. (The terrifying consequence of not knowing what you are is that someone could accurately spot you as something you most energetically don’t want to be. The fear of being misperceived shades into a fear of being perceived at all.)

6. Like Normal

So what’s it like when I treat someone like a normal person? I’ve had the experience, more than once, of meeting someone once or twice or several times before I felt comfortable enough to be myself around them; then looking back painedly on those initial meetings and feeling that I had grossly underestimated them. Underestimated their intelligence? Yes, sometimes. That is what tends to mortify me the most, the thought that in those initial encounters I was obviously and offensively “dumbing myself down” for them. During many such encounters, though, it does not seem like that to me. To me it appears as simply translating something from my own possibly idiosyncratic and specialized terms into what I think might be more universal / standard / objective ones. Or putting myself in a more general context, translating something from terms which depend for their meaning on a very specific or subjective context (books I’ve read and talked about, sciences I know well, recent romantic relationships I’ve had) to a more universal context, “common life experience”. This, of course, is rather hilarious: I try to translate something from a language I know perfectly well to one I can only speculate about, which might well not actually exist (“relationships in general”: which I know from where? movies? dumb internet articles? television shows? —And where do those people know anything from?). It’s like trying to translate from English to Russian or Proto-Indo European or Elvish. I wonder how silly I sound when I do this; I’m honestly not sure whether it makes me more or less intelligible. After all I don’t know if anyone thinks “in a general context” at all. Yawp, yawp, yawp, throwing out words.

Chairs That Don’t Exist

The normal conceived as the universal, the general. The normal person conceived as the general person. Just that makes it clear how incoherent a concept it is. You can’t sit on a general chair.

Except that in a sense you can talk to a general person. You might in the process come off as a merely general person to them. But for your purposes that’s ok. I am thinking of your purposes in situations where you basically want to avoid engagement and connection. When either engaging or disengaging seems like it would take more time or effort than you are willing to spare. In these cases it’s not so much like trying to meet on a common plane, as speaking through a muffling and obscuring screen. Each is visible and audible only through the screen, and each is relieved of effort by it. Like the décor of a Starbucks or the tropes of an action movie; meant to create a familiar particular aesthetic environment while deflecting attention from itself. Or perhaps they meet on a common plane the way that shadows meet on a wall. And so this mutual hiding is an aid to communication as much as it is a barrier. Each conversant is limited to, and thus responsible for, only such coarse gestures or sounds as will be legible through the screen. Communication is defanged of its threatening shades and subtleties.

What One Might Conclude from All This

Whatever this has been, it has not been an argument. Your guess is as good as mine as to what exactly to take from any of this, and in terms of particular morals or behaviors, my own interpretation will probably change from day to day. But here are some parting thoughts.

1.

It’s funny that I thought that what endeared me to people, warmed me to people, was a sense that they were solitary like me. Is it a sense of neediness that attracts me? That they “need a friend”? Maybe. But at the same time part of what makes me comfortable with them is the feeling that they have learned to deal with loneliness. That they can “handle” anything I say, and probably find it interesting, because they will take it in, relate it to their other thoughts, make use of it. I am not responsible for the value of my words because they can put their own value into anything. I need only be sufficiently interesting.

What attracts me (I could use the past tense, and talk about how I “used to be”, but I can’t untangle my continuities and discontinuities so neatly) is loneliness. It’s funny because the goal, the implicit goal, is togetherness, but people who seem to be social and together do not appeal to me. It’s also funny because I act like loneliness is something that sets these people apart from normal people, when in fact everyone is alone. At least, this is what I suspect.

2.

I don’t mean that this is all a bad thing, this screen. There are plenty of worthy reasons, I would think, not to say everything that comes to mind or to bare our souls in every situation. (Not to mention that sharing ourselves with others, and sharing in what others try to share with us, is much, much more complicated than simply disrobing.) But there are situations where we hide ourselves, not quite knowing why and not quite knowing why we wish we didn’t. Fear, like other passions, does not simply overpower reason but confuses it, even compels it to argue in favor of what fear urges. Surely, wherever we have come from, it would be better if we could be a bit less lonely, not so much more lonely than we have to be.