Someone I dearly love alerted me to this op-ed which ran yesterday in the NYTimes. At the grave risk of preaching to the converted I want to say a few things about it.
Firstly you can tell that it’s adapted from a commencement address by its tone and formula: anecdote –> problem –> platitudinous conclusion –> problem –> anecdote –>uplifting proposal/solution. To be honest I had difficulty getting through the whole thing, and kind of skipped around, trying to find some craggy edge, some trembling moment of uncertainty or complexity that I could hook on to and feel in my skin. I couldn’t find any, so I went back and read the thing from beginning to end and still couldn’t find any.
The thing is, though, he says a few things about love that I guess are maybe valid. I think about love all the time. I could talk about “the problem of actual love,” as Franzen calls it, all day long. He’s right that love hurts, is messy, demands surrender. But what he is drawing here is the binary we’ve all grown so tired of, a two-sided speculum that probes the mushy, fleshy stuff of real life and real relationships on one end and the contrived, digitized personae of social media on the other. He also talks about birds, which fits neatly into the essay’s schematics: on one hand, or in it, rather–cold, consumerist technology; the sleeker, faster phone–and on the other hand, what’s this?–another hand, a grasping, human hand, gesturing toward the bird, the fluttering embodiment of Love and Nature.
He writes: “My aim here is mainly to set up a contrast between the narcissistic tendencies of technology and the problem of actual love.”
He writes: “There is no such thing as a person whose real self you like every particle of. This is why a world of liking is ultimately a lie. But there is such a thing as a person whose real self you love every particle of. And this is why love is such an existential threat to the techno-consumerist order: it exposes the lie.”
I think we’ve all faced ourselves after a maybe late night or lonely-day ‘liking’ binge and felt a tad gross. But I don’t know that anyone, even your dad or great aunt or any other type of person on the internet, confuses ‘liking’ something on Facebook with loving someone existentially. So at this point I’m wondering what he’s going on about.
We are so many selves, is the real problem, if it is a problem.
It’s an easy leap to make when you’re standing in front of hungover, starry-eyed graduates–that leap from the thing they do 27 times a day with their fingers (not that one, the other one) and the thing they think of as having a capital “L.” Franzen is playing fast and loose and Keatsian–you ‘like,’ o feckless youth, but can you Love–and he’s also missing an opportunity to dig more deeply into this thing of love, to get past all of this obvious flesh (the fighting! the rejection! the transcendence!) and etch something into its very bone.
Because: love exists online too. I think I fall in love a dozen times a day online, with words, with images, with ideas. What Franzen is talking about when he talks about love is the same kind of love, seemingly, that we recognize and understand through so many of the “consumerist” channels that are besties, if not parents, of the ones he’s impugning. Sitcom love. Rom-com love. Domestic, monogamous love. Roommate love. He’s a writer, and he’s giving no consideration whatsoever to the love that is real that is the love of art and thought and moment and aura and trace.
The “in real life” predicate looms temptingly, yes, but it’s not so straightforward, is it. Sometimes, we read a book and wonder about its author, as we glance at a Facebook profile and wonder about its owner, try to glimpse from this photo or that status update something “else,” something “further.” Sometimes we sit next to a person we’ve known and loved for years and try to glean the same thing.