This is the fourth in a five-part series. The third is here.
Like anyone desperate to make something of themselves, I think often and hard about the people I admire. Exactly what, I wonder, took them from zero to admired-by-Colin? At its worst, this thinking leads to a (potentially lifelong) snipe hunt for some illusory x factor. I find that, if you keep it higher-order, you can actually learn some useful lessons: imitate how your icons did, I've written less succinctly here before, not what they did. But it's not as if I dream of climbing up on a gilded pedestal; I only want to avoid sinking — as appears to be the natural human tendency — into the condition of the cog.
It's hardly surprising that so many of my favorite quotations have to do with just that. "People have vast potential," Philip Adams said. "Most people can do extraordinary things if they have the confidence or take the risks. Yet most people don't. They sit in front of the telly and treat life as if it goes on forever." Joel Hildebrand thought that "very few people do anything creative after the age of thirty-five," the reason being that "very few people do anything creative before the age of thirty-five." George Orwell observed that "the great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all — and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery." H.L. Mencken called one of the capital tragedies of youth "that the young are thrown mainly with adults they do not quite respect," that a young boy's grown companions, "forced upon him by the inexorable decrees of a soulless and irrational state, are schoolma'ams, male and female, which is to say, persons of trivial and unromantic achievement, and no more capable of inspiring emulation in a healthy boy than so many midwives or dog-catchers."
Is it more important to know what drove someone to avoid coghood, or to know what drove someone else into coghood? I'm actually slightly more fascinated by the latter. The only reason I spend more time on the former is because it's easier to ask a person what went right in their life than what went wrong. This, of course, simply sweeps aside the thorny issue of how much perspective is needed to determine whether any given event did go "right" or "wrong," and the even more complicated question of if the blame actually belongs where people lay it.
But don't you long to know what pitfalls people have fallen into, what bad turns they've taken, if only so you'll stand a better change of identifying them when you come upon them yourself? My dream would be to produce a public radio-style oral history program which features, instead of the weeping elderly, people who believe their lives "didn't pan out." Alas, until I can get a grant for that controversial project, I'm forced to observe from a distance. Only with my keen-ish eye and serviceable powers of logic can I attempt to determine the secret ingredients of failsauce.Since we're four deep into this series, you've surely foreseen that I think this riddle's answer has to do with social ineptitude. Here's my best guess: no matter the degree of skill he possesses, the social maladroit will tend to get stuck at a point that feels to him like failure. Caveat the first: this seems to apply less to those of incandescent, once-in-a-generation brilliance. Though the world might not beat a path to his door, it's not unprecedented for, say, a herd of tech entrepreneurs to fight over an ace of a programmer who cannot communicate with his species. Caveat the second: the point of stuckness might really only feel like failure to the social maladroit stuck in it; others might see him as successful. Or he might eventually get a delayed break. Or he might get that ultimate mixed blessing, the posthumous break.
I got thinking about this a lot harder when I started thinking about B.S. Johnson. Never heard of him? Exactly. An avant-garde writer and filmmaker, Bryan Stanley Johnson spent his short life — a self-shortened life — working so very hard to transcend the formal and intellectual constraints of novels, theater and movies. Intrigued by his story as fascinatingly told by Jonathan Coe in his Johnson biography, Like a Fiery Elephant, I decided to write a primer on the man's novels for The Millions. The books are, on the whole, terrific: intellectually affecting and formally exciting. So why did Johnson wind up broke, little-known, apocalyptically despairing and dead in the bathtub?
Testimony from those who knew him reveals that, for all his writing skill and all his courtesy to those of lower status, Johnson could be a real pain in the butt to those positioned to help him. Coe paints a portrait of a sociopathically resentful man given to relentless dogmatism and pounding argumentative aggression. He burned bridges without hesitation through his decade-long career, tearing through agents and publishers at an astonishing clip. In response to every perceived slight — and he perceived many — Johnson committed verbal evisceration. ("You ignorant unliterary Americans make me puke," etc.) The bile slowly inflated him like the world's bitterest balloon. Eventually, the balloon popped.
I usually cast a dubious eye on claims about long-suffering artists who aren't getting their supposed due; these martyrs typically turn out not to be doing much worth writing home about. But I'm endlessly intrigued by obviously skilled creators who so obstinately stand in their own way. B.S. Johnson couldn't get out of attack mode long enough to see clearly. The withdrawn Nick Drake, afflicted by some sort of progressively crippling shyness, couldn't promote his albums or make meaningful contact with those who could. Orson Welles, once thought something of a golden boy, is now regarded as having pissed his goodwill away in battle after pointless battle. It couldn't have helped that all three regarded their own works as masterpieces and said so, the most autistic-seeming behavior of all these.
I've come to doubt, strongly, whether the laboring-in-obscurity problem is actually about labor. Some fans of those who labor in obscurity claim that, oh, what their idols are doing is simply too good, too hard for our philistine world; everyone knows that only dreck succeeds. (And, naturally, whatever succeeds must be dreck.) Looking around at which creators break through and which don't, I can't imagine what the work itself could explain. Much more predictive is their ability (a heavily interest-in-other-people-based one) to plug themselves into the social matrix that makes best use of their skills, no matter those skills' strength or weakness.
Those convinced that works that are "harder" or more complex or that ask more of their audience naturally can't succeed have much to explain. David Lynch and Werner Herzog, two filmmakers nobody accuses of dumbing it down, are quite successful. Can it be coincidental that, in both cases, their amiability is legend? "Everybody has fun when they work with David," says Mary Sweeney in a documentary on the making of Lost Highway. "The most affable guy ever," somebody else calls him in it. "Nobody is treated like a celebrity on my set," Herzog said in a recent interview, "but everyone gets treated like royalty."
To some of you, this stuff is totally obvious, hardly worth saying. To others, it's not worth saying because you don't feel like you'll ever in a million years bring yourself to act on it. But from what I can tell — in the parlance of the previous installment — nobody is quite so fucked as he who lacks an interest in social connection, even if he's awesome at work which itself has ostensibly nothing to do with the social world. Maybe this is the sort of thing Daniel Goleman was talking about in Emotional Intelligence. All I remember from that book is the part where the guy shoots his daughter in the neck.
Stay tuned for the thrilling Part V of The Plight of the Social Maladroit, tomorrow on The War on Mediocrity.