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Can You Please Put That in Writing?

Updated: Dec 16, 2023

The interesting thing about humans, especially from the perspective of a post-humanist like me, is how they work against their own interests, despite the fact they're so self-interested. It's precipitating the destruction of the planet, the extinction of other species, and ultimately humans as well. But that's an old story.  

Writers have been lamenting human self-interest since Homer. The first line of the first work of literature we have, other than the Gilgamesh, is, "Anger be now your song, immortal one,/Akhilleus' anger, doomed and ruinous, that caused the Akhaians loss on bitter loss/and crowded brave souls into the undergloom,/leaving so many dead . . . ."* The great hero is pissed. He feels slighted, and he's going to make everyone pay as a result, including his own people.  

The agon, or main conflict, of the writer's second work, The Odyssey, also deals with self-interest run amok, that is the greed of the suitors. (Actually, we don't know what order Homer wrote the two epics, or even if Homer was a real person, but neither fact has any bearing on the argument here.) The suitors are all after the loot of the absent king, Odysseus, embodied in the person of his wife and queen, Penelope. She allegorizes both the king's power and possessions, and they're willing to do anything to get their hands on her.  

It turns out that self-interest and self-centeredness are in fact themes in almost all of literature. That is to say, unfettered desire. The inability to say no to oneself––the most prevalent problem in print relates to something like He's gotta have it, or in the Spike Lee version, She's gotta have it. When desire rages, humans are not very good at denying themselves. As a result, Achilles is content to see the Greeks––again his own people, the Akhaians––lose the war with Troy, because his war booty, in both senses of that word, namely Brisêus, has been taken from him.

Here we are twenty-six or -seven hundred years after Homer and humans find themselves in a similar condition, unwilling and unable to moderate their own egos. Sages and saviors have come and gone, preaching gospels against greed, and look where we find ourselves, including the struggles in our politics. I once heard a nun give a sermon (!) in which she pointed out that what made Jesus great wasn't any divine dimension––she wasn't even sure he was god. What made him special, say in the case of the loaves and the fishes, is that he was able to get people to share. A handful of loaves turned into enough for five thousand, once people stopped hoarding, once they reached in their satchels and exposed the loaves they were hiding, guarding for themselves. She argued, Getting people to see past themselves was Jesus' superpower. The real miracle. Beyond that it doesn't matter if he was divine in the conventional, i.e. Homeric, sense.  

Writers since the gospel fabulists have been spinning versions of those stories ever since. Milton's hero, Satan, is so obsessed with the fact that god chose his son over him as his right-hand man that in his fury he's content to ruin a world. He's very human in that regard. His justification is god's reliance on primogeniture over meritocracy. And Melville's Ahab, completley off his rocker, is so obsessed with his feelings toward the whale, Moby, that he's happy to sink his ship and everyone on it in the service to himself, his own desires. 

The message yet again seems to be, look where self-centeredness gets you. Time after time, book after book, novel after novel, we've been told countless times, about the miserable reality that humans are weak in the knees before their own desires, causing us to be indifferent to the sufferings of others. Uncaring, thievish, murderous, shallow, petty, conceited, and all-around embarrassing.  

In the old days writers used to balance self-centeredness with altruism, assigning those traits to different entities, separating them out: protagonists versus antagonists. After Milton, however, that conceit was largely abandoned. With Satan we get the rise of the antihero––there'd be no Ahab without him, nor any modern literary figure.  

A world of antiheros is where we're at now, that is aside from 1930s and 40s films, and, OK, Hallmark movies and Harlequin novels too. Beyond those, in "real" literature, the altruistic type has been ditched for a more "realistic" version of the self as antiheroic. The typical protagonist today is conflicted to say the least, torn between her own desires and those of the people around her. What was dramatized in two warring factions in the old days has been distilled today in the battleground of the human psyche, with an assist from Freud.  

What amazes me, in literature and on the evening news, is how far we haven't come. We find ourselves perennially at square one, trapped in Achilles' mindset of me, me, me, as though it's a defining flaw of our species, and a deadly one at that, especially for other species but for ourselves as well––I mean what species shits on its own, including its own environment, the way we do?

Perhaps our saving grace is that we write about it. The tens of thousands of books published every year tell, warn us about, the deleterious effects of eight billion egos vying to satisfy themselves in a world scarce on resources. We don't seem to change, but we've got to write about it all the same. About the frustrations of desire most of all. Self-centeredness in the world. The bad ways people have been treated. About trama, real and imagined. The many ways the world––people––have let and have been let down. Very little in lit says, I was a fuck. A bad friend. A wanting lover or spouse.  

I'm not trying to be flippant or dismissive––there are genuinely "nice" people out there, heroes in my book, not to mention real victims, of biology and circumstance both. Those stories need to be told, even though they apparently make bad reading, or Hallmark-viewing.  What I'm interested in here is a certain resilience, of a common theme, a thread through all writing since writing was invented. There are few Ben Franklins or Jay Gatsbys out there who make lists of ways they can improve themselves, become better people. Characters that recognize their failures to themselves, others, and the world. When you see it, it's golden. It seems that hope for the species, plural, if that's even possible, must begin there. In a balancing act. Somewhere past ourselves.

*Homer, The Iliad. Trans. Robert Fitzgerald. NY: FSG, 1975.

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