Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Tropic of Cancer

The millennial bug

leave a comment »

Ernest Hemingway

“The myth that underemployed, poorly housed young people are joyfully engaged in a project of creative destruction misrepresents our economic reality,” Laura Marsh wrote earlier this week in The New Republic. Marsh was lashing out, and to some extent with good reason, at the way in which the media likes to portray millennials as cultural rebels. She points out that many of the lifestyle trends that have been observed in people under thirty-five—communal living, car sharing, a preference for “accessing” content rather than paying for individual movies or albums, even a dislike of paper napkins—have less to do with free choice than with simple economic considerations. We’re living in a relatively healthy economy that has been rough on young workers and recent graduates, and millennials, on average, have lower standards of living than their parents did at the same age. It’s no surprise, then, that the many of the social patterns that they exhibit would be shaped by these constraints. What frustrates Marsh is the idea that millennials are voluntarily electing to eliminate certain elements from their lives, like vacations or steady jobs, rather than being forced into those choices by a dearth of opportunity. Headlines tell us that “Millennials are killing the X industry,” when a more truthful version would be “Millennials are locked out of the X industry.” As Marsh concludes: “There’s nothing like being told precarity is actually your cool lifestyle choice.”

I’m not going to dispute this argument, which I think is a pretty reasonable one. But I’d also like to raise the possibility that Marsh and her targets are both right. Let’s perform a quick thought experiment, and try to envision a millennial lifestyle—at least of the kind that is likely to influence the culture in a meaningful way—that isn’t in some way connected to economic factors. The fact is, we can’t. For better or worse, every youth subculture, particularly of the sort that we like to romanticize, emerges from what Marsh calls precarity, or the condition of living on the edge. Sometimes it’s by choice, sometimes it isn’t, and it can be hard to tell the difference. Elsewhere, I’ve described the bohemian lifestyle as a body of pragmatic solutions to the problem of trying to make art for a living. A book like Tropic of Cancer is a manual of survival, and everything that seems distinctive about its era, from the gatherings in coffee shops to the drug and alcohol abuse, can be seen in that light. You could say much the same of the counterculture of the sixties and seventies: being a hippie is a surprisingly practical pursuit, with a limited set of possible approaches, if you’re determined to prioritize certain values. In time, it becomes a style or a statement, but only after a few members of that generation have produced important works of art. And because the artists fascinate us, we look at their lives for clues of how they emerged, while forgetting how much of it was imposed by financial realities.

Henry Miller

Take the Futurians, for example, whom I can discuss at length because I’ve been thinking about them a lot. They were a circle of science fiction fans who gathered around the charismatic figure of Donald A. Wollheim in the late thirties, and they can seem impossibly remote from us—more so, I suspect, than the Lost Generation of the decade before. But when you look at them more closely, you start to see a lot of familiar patterns. They practiced a kind of communal living; they were active on the social media of their time, namely the fanzines, in which they engaged in fierce ideological disputes; and many of them were drawn to a form of socialism that even a supporter of Bernie Sanders might find extreme. Most were unemployed, trying to scratch out a living as freelance writers and consistently failing to break into the professional magazines. And they were defined, on a practical level, by their lack of money. Fred Pohl says that his favorite activity was to walk for miles with a friend to a lunch counter in Times Square to buy a cheap sandwich and cup of coffee, and turn around to trudge home again, which would kill most of an afternoon. James Blish and Virginia Kidd lived for months on a bag of rice. Whenever someone got a job, he or she left the group. The rest continued to scrape by as best they could. And the result was a genuine counterculture that arose at the point where the Great Depression merged with the solutions that a few gifted but underemployed writers developed to hang in there for as long as possible.

This probably isn’t much consolation to a recent graduate in his or her twenties whose only ambition at the moment is to pay the rent. But that’s true of previous generations as well. We tend to remember a handful of exceptional individuals, particularly those who produced defining works of art, and we forget the others who were just trying to get by. As the decades pass, I suspect that the same process will occur with the millennials, and that the narrative of who they were will have less to do with Marsh’s thoughtful essay than with the think pieces about how twentysomethings are killing relationships, or car culture, or the napkin industry. And it won’t be wrong. Invariably, at any point in history, the majority of young people don’t have many resources—and that’s especially true for those who use their twenties to try to tell stories about themselves. Where the periods differ is in the details, which is why the boring fact of precarity tends to fade into the background while the external manifestations get our attention. This is already happening now, and at a more accelerated rate than ever before. It’s premature to accuse the millennials, with their science-fictional name, of “killing” anything, just as it’s too soon to figure out exactly what they’ve accomplished. Marsh writes of the baby boomers: “They can’t understand that sometimes change happens for reasons other than cultural rebellion.” But it would be more accurate to say that cultural rebellion and strategies for survival come from the same place.

Written by nevalalee

September 1, 2016 at 9:00 am

The practical bohemian, or the art of getting by

with 6 comments

You want to know the only thing you can assume about a broken-down old man? It’s that he’s a survivor.

Christopher McQuarrie, The Way of the Gun

The same is true for a writer who is still working after five or ten years. Writing for a living is an education, and not just in the obvious ways. After a few years of writing on your own, you’ve inevitably developed a bag of the usual narrative tricks—get into scenes as late as possible, cut all drafts by ten percent—but you’ve also learned some practical tools for survival. You know how to write a publishable short story in a couple of weeks, rather than the month or more it might have taken in the past. You know where to find cheap books. Like J.K. Rowling, you know the address of a café that will let you write for hours if you buy a cup of tea. Maybe you’ve gone through a period where you drank or smoked too much, and then hopefully managed to get beyond it. And you’ve met other artists who have figured out some of the same things.

Because the unseen, communal art of writing is that of surviving happily on very little. In his great Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics, R.H. Blyth describes voluntary poverty as “safety first, a kind of fire insurance by burning down the house,”  which also explains why most writers, including myself, eventually decide to quit their day jobs. The optimal solution, obviously, is to have it both ways: to write and work a steady job, as many writers have indeed done. But for most of us, the time ultimately comes when you need to make a choice. And of the two extremes of being consumed by a non-writing career and renouncing it entirely, walking away seems the safer solution, even if it means giving up some material comfort. And if nothing else, a writer can take heart from the fact that the things he needs to survive—books, a little food, a source of caffeine—can be had for almost nothing.

Take all these tricks, add them up, and turn them into a culture and community, and you have the artist’s life. More specifically, you have Midnight in Paris. Most artists eventually come up with similar solutions to these problems, in a sort of convergent evolution, which is why bohemians in all times and places tend to resemble one another more than the societies around them. But the lifestyle is a means to an end, and one of the worst things we can do is romanticize this kind of existence for its own sake. Everything that we find romantic about the Lost Generation and other spiritual bohemians—the coffee shops, the cheap neighborhoods, even the drug and alcohol abuse—originated as a practical answer to a particular question. And the untidy life of a Fitzgerald or Henry Miller can only be understood as very specific solution to the problem of how to sit down and write for hours at a time.

A writer’s goal, as I see it, should be to combine the simplest possible external life with an inner life of great complexity. This may sound like a spiritual or mystical objective, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s the result of cold, calculating pragmatism. Voluntary simplicity, enforced solitude, joining a community of artists, renunciation of other kinds of careerism—these may seem like ethical choices, but they’re as basic and value-neutral as any other set of tools. And if we tend to forget this, and get distracted by side issues, it’s only because getting by on one’s own terms inevitably leads, almost by accident, to a very interesting life. It took me years to realize that Tropic of Cancer wasn’t about sex, but a handbook of art and survival. And while we may be fascinated by the details, the artist’s ultimate goal should be to say, with Miller: “I have no money, no resources, no hopes. I am the happiest man alive.”

%d bloggers like this: