Columns » Penny Post by Andrei Codrescu

Useful Qualities


I try to look on the sunny side, but time does a number on you. I know that most human beings are tormented, but they try to rise above that, especially in company. When somebody shows up, the husband and wife who've been fighting stop their bickering and put on their best faces. In public, people try to behave considerately and make other people happier, or at least give a good impression and be likeable. The restraints of society are, generally, beneficial to most people. Henry Miller said somewhere that when you are miserable, it is easy to find people to sympathize with you, because your misery makes them feel better. It is not so easy, he said, to find people to share your happiness. In reality, people share very little in company. They share neither sorrow nor joy, but platitudes. Time-tested platitudes keep things humming along, without highs or lows. The universe of platitudes is vast and impersonal and is constantly enriched by the media, by schools, by families, by a whole complex machinery that produces them in order to maintain social order. The asocial nature of people's "real" feelings is in the care of the pharmaceutical industry, which has made all "talking cures" obsolete. Confessional television is now providing formulas for anyone's talking needs, and Reality TV takes care to quickly translate emergencies into subjects of conversation. In fact, there are so many social controls in place now, it is impossible to have a feeling without an instantly appropriate translation. This is doubly true for young people, who are the subject of intense marketing campaigns aimed at translating every one of their inchoate impulses into an articulate desire for a specific object. Even the time-honored trick of infusing an abstraction such as "love" with the light of an indefinite cosmic source is no longer easy, given that vivid walls of imagery now surround the garden. These days there is a ratcheting-up of the emotional level of our populace because we are getting ready for war. The platitudes of peacetime are being infused by anxiety and paranoia in various doses. Can the pill-and-platitude factories keep up? We will see. Meanwhile, I hold on to the following qualities, useful under all circumstances, despite efforts to channel them on cable: generosity and courage. The first is to get over the worst impulses of ingrained selfishness, the second to keep going. Just thinking about these things is scary: what if the friggin' enemy shows up?

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