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Monday, May 30, 2011 

A kind of mortal nerve

It's been a busy month, and I have a larger post full of all the things I've been wanting to write about that's half done, but sometimes you read something and feel that it's imperative to share it with people.

So: one of those things I wanted to share was Joan Didion's amazing essay "On Self Respect," which an enterprising blogger has shared in full (with an interesting introductory note concerning what it's like to type out an essay). I think I may have quoted Didion's essay with approval before, and it is a fantastic piece of writing, but I'd like to draw your attention to two parts of it:

Once, in a dry season, I wrote in large letters across two pages of a notebook that innocence ends when one is stripped of the delusion that one likes oneself.

and

If we do not respect ourselves, we are the one hand forced to despise those who have so few resources as to consort with us, so little perception as to remain blind to our fatal weaknesses. On the other, we are peculiarly in thrall to everyone we see, curiously determined to live out – since our self-image is untenable – their false notion of us [...] At the mercy of those we cannot but hold in contempt, we play roles doomed to failure before they are begun, each defeat generating fresh despair at the urgency of divining and meeting the next demand made upon us.

Strong, true stuff. Jonathan Franzen's current NYT op ed (adapted from a commencement speech I haven't had time to hear in full yet) is not specifically about self-respect; it is about technology, and love, and the distinction between love and like. Although I have never read Franzen's fiction (and still have no real intention to do so), it is an amazing piece of work. And more than anything, it made me think of Didion's essay. To follow up on my two quotations from Didion, consider these two:

[I]f you succeed in manipulating other people into liking you, it will be hard not to feel, at some level, contempt for those people, because they’ve fallen for your shtick. (emphasis mine)

and

The simple fact of the matter is that trying to be perfectly likable is incompatible with loving relationships. Sooner or later, for example, you’re going to find yourself in a hideous, screaming fight, and you’ll hear coming out of your mouth things that you yourself don’t like at all, things that shatter your self-image as a fair, kind, cool, attractive, in-control, funny, likable person. Something realer than likability has come out in you, and suddenly you’re having an actual life.

Strong, true stuff there too. And while this might all seem obvious, the way that reading these two essays in succession sets out a view of the world in which real love and true self respect are not just related but inextricable is a little breathtaking. If you've got twenty minutes or so to spare, I highly recommend reading both of these and then just thinking about it for a minute. I can't imagine it will make your day any worse.

And of course, continued praise goes to Clem Bastow for bringing the Franzen to my attention. You should be reading her Tumblr.

yes, i read the franzen over the weekend and thought it was good, though nothing new...internet friendships are a very poor substitute for the real thing. (present company excepted, naturally!). though easier to maintain. no one on the internet ever wants you to drive them to the autobody shop to pick up their car or bake cookies for the local theater group, etc. etc.

Whoops, lost this comment in the inbox...

That's a really interesting point, one that I don't think Franzen really hits; that kind of interdependance (or annoyance) that's part of friendship.

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About me

Ian Mathers is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Stylus, the Village Voice, Resident Advisor, PopMatters, and elsewhere. He does stuff and it magically appears here.

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