Zygmunt Bauman, author of Does Ethics Have a Chance in a World of Consumers?
Tracy Kyncl’s post last week in the Crier struck a nerve. Between September and April—when my multiple teaching contracts expired—I wandered Toronto in a “very tired” state due mostly to my obligation to be “very serious about [my] work.” Work was killing me, and what life was left in me was largely swallowed up by the obligations I had made to the literary world—obligations I made so that I could force myself to keep contributing even though I had little time or energy to do so. As a result, I’m positive I contributed to Kyncl’s sad portrait of a generation stuck in “malaise.”
And I’m one of the lucky ones. I had multiple teaching contracts. I’d finally gotten off the minimum wage job cycle. I had benefits! Even so, the burdens on this generation—among them crushing student debt, economic uncertainty, and, of course, looming environmental catastrophe—made it difficult to feel truly at ease, even during those rare moments when I had the time to even entertain such a state of mind.
Now it’s nearly summer. I have no teaching contracts. My workload is whatever I feel like working on. This should be the time for eradicating this long, long winter’s discontent, to embrace, in Kyncl’s words, “the bold, breakaway potential for unabashed enjoyment of life—and the artistic energy that enjoyment emboldens.” Yet, I pause. I want artistic energy, but does anyone deserve “unabashed enjoyment of life”? Perhaps that doubt comes from some Catholic guilt still lingering in my DNA, but as Kyncl points out, a feeling does count for something. So is it possible to garner that energy if one finds it difficult to discard a lingering sense of uncertainty and dread? We live in a heavy age. Even if we forget everything else, and just think about climate change: how do you let go of a fear when that fear stems from a danger posed to the entire Earth?
Maybe you simply don’t. In Does Ethics Have a Chance in a World of Consumers? Zygmunt Bauman tells us “uncertainty is the natural habitat of human life—although it is the hope of escaping uncertainty that is the engine of human pursuits.” According to Bauman, this is the tension at play in our continuous self-creations: we create our own identity, and possess the power to alter that identity. Meanwhile we are haunted by the impermanence of it all. The tension Kyncl identifies—between the serious and worried and the silly and carefree—is similar to that identified by Bauman in that both address the difficult task of finding refuge from uncertainty. To act more like Miley Cyrus, as Kyncl asks us to do, we need to somehow quell the uncertainty and dread that drags us down. But again, how?
We cannot, after all, be blamed for whatever dread we carry with us. We have eyes with which to see, and so we can’t help but notice the many causes of our dread. But perhaps to achieve the levity Kyncl seeks, we need not discard dread entirely. Maybe we can work with it. Instead of leaving our troubles behind, maybe we can occupy the tension that exists between the troubles and their abatement, and take a breath of fresh air.
There are many means of accomplishing this, of course. When Bob Dylan left the very serious folk scene to become a shit-disturbing rock and roller, he grew younger, at least according to his song. He also grew as an artist. To cite a more recent example, I saw a guy yesterday who was dressed in a neat black Nike jumpsuit with white trim. He had hair like Garth’s in Wayne’s World. I watched him for half a block. He walked backward the whole time, as if this was his regular routine. As he walked away, he was still facing me. No one else seemed to notice.
He had some kind of message for me. I didn’t stay to figure it out. I had somewhere to be.