Unleash Your Inner Angst through a Literary Alter Ego

snape_wangst___lsI have often considered it unfair that the bigwigs of the music scene can split themselves into two by virtue of a stage persona and still be taken seriously. On more than one occasion I have put on my extra-large hoop earrings and demanded that my peers call me Pheyoncé, and on more than one occasion I have been derided as a fool. But, as a wise man probably somewhere once said, how can one release that which was never a prisoner in the first place? The expectation of the modern world is not that one emulates one’s best self through moments of transformative performativity, but that one is like that all the time. The days in which I don my biggest hoops and pretend to read my biggest books in public are increasingly becoming the norm. Frankly, it’s exhausting, which is why nowadays my alter ego is not an inner diva but an inner angster, designed to allow me to indulge in my weekly weeping sessions without disrupting my carefully cultivated image of laidback cheer. It’s important to give these feelings a planned outlet, otherwise they will viciously bubble up without warning causing one to say inappropriate things like “death is the horizon through which we organize our lives” or “you’re an inauthentic phony and I disown you as my grandmother!” Because I am a complex and nuanced person, I have not one but several angster egos, which I switch between depending on the situation. Because, despite being complex and nuanced, I sometimes suffer from an imagination shortage, all these have been plagiarized from the books that I pretend to read. And because what I lack in imagination I make up for with unbridled generosity, I hereby share these personas and give you permission to use them in the manner that you best see fit.

The Godly Angster

My parents, rather confusingly, baptized me as a catholic and then proceeded to raise me as an atheist. Whilst this fixes me up with a spot in heaven as long as I repent on my deathbed, it also means that I cannot absolve my bucketloads of catholic guilt through the fun sounding practice of confession. And so instead I occasionally indulge in a little bit of hysteric praying, just as Franny does in J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. Obviously Holden Caulfield is the Number One angster in the world and I deeply respect that, but as I am no longer a teenage boy (technically, I never was), I must seek refuge in other characters from Salinger’s oeuvre. Of course I recommend you read this charming novella, but if you really don’t have the time then all you need to know in order to channel Franny is that she’s “sick of not having the courage to be an absolute nobody” and believes that if she says the Jesus prayer enough times she’ll banish the phoniness that plagues her existence.

The Hunterly Angster

The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber by Ernest Hemingway is about the short (but not always happy) life of Francis Macomber. Francis enters a period of angst after he runs away from a lion during a safari hunting trip. Although I do not condone hunting, I think we all have experienced a time in our lives in which we fail to shoot that metaphorical gun and then must endure the metaphorical hammock of humiliation as our metaphorical wives deem us a coward and sleep with the metaphorical hunting ranger. Ernie doesn’t only give us an appropriate characterization of this predicament; he also offers us a way of overcoming it: stare death in the face and have a straight whiskey.

The Existential Angster

Angst isn’t really about lions. It’s about the Being of lions, and when we come to realise this and acknowledge our absolute freedom or absolute servitude (depending on what side of the continental table you eat your breakfast), it can be a huge relief. The most popular literary existential angster is probably Meursault from Camus’ The Stranger, but I have no time for men who don’t cry at their mother’s funerals. So instead I suggest that we give our existentialism a feminist hat and channel Anne Dubreuilh from The Mandarins by Simone de Beauvoir. Whilst de Beauvoir’s fiction is pretty mediocre compared to her philosophical writings, The Mandarins provides plenty of entertainment as all the characters are based on her real life angster companions (Sartre, Camus, Algren, etc.) and so by embodying Anne you are basically embodying de Beauvoir. For this type of angst you must be French- so if you don’t already own a beret, go out and buy one right now. It is also necessary to have more than one lover and a penchant for smoking whilst angsting.

It is a shame, really, that it is no longer appropriate to angst full time, and that instead one must resort to play acting in order to lead the life of a sensitive soul. Even the book characters of the modern day don’t mope; instead they zoom across the page as if they’re trying to hurry up time. One day I hope that the tables will turn yet again, making angst the default and high-functionality a somewhat sordid aspect of one’s personality, only to be whipped out in life or death situations. Until then, I shall keep my cigarettes and tissues hidden from view, and arm myself with an artificial smile.

Phoebe

Header image courtesy of liquidscissors on deviantart.

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Bike Eulogy

nobikenoswagTo those of you who were born and bred in the land of Nether, I imagine that the bicycle appears as everyday an object as your kettle or thumb: a precious tool, but not one that inspires the poetry of the muses. However, to a humble Londoner like myself, (whose experiences of bikes before arriving in Amsterdam can be pinpointed to some childhood japes in an urban park, my dad occasionally coming home to complain that his own bike had been squashed/stolen/weed-upon, and strong associations with an undesirable blonde-mopped mayor), forming a relationship with my two-wheeled buddy has been something of a revelation. And now, as I face an inevitable return to a country where cars and the conservatives rule the roost, the bond between me and bike gains even more intensity.
But things weren’t always this way. When I first purchased my bike nine months ago, I left it locked outside for a fortnight without so much as uttering a “hello” when I ran past it to catch a tram. Then, when I eventually girded my loins and took it for a ride, I ended up losing the key for my wheel lock and leaving it in a dubious corner of the red-light district for four days. Upon returning, armed with a bike-man who was armed with a chainsaw, I saw that not only had I locked my bike to itself but I had also, with my main lock, chained it to someone else’s bike too. This someone had, quite understandably, viciously beaten up my bike in attempt to free their own and, when failing in doing so, had left me a very aggressive note. Feeling like a terrible human being, I sat on the pavement and wept.
For some weeks after this incident, I held towards my bike equal feelings of esteem and resentment. I cared for it but I wished it would leave me alone. I couldn’t even so much as go shopping without having to find a safe and cosy place to lock it up first. Sometimes it would wheeze like a dying mouse when I rode it, sometimes it would stay obstinately quiet. When it had a punctured tire, I didn’t even notice until my thighs were so stiff that I couldn’t so much as go to the loo without the help of a friend.
“My bike doesn’t communicate very well with me”, I moaned to the mechanic who was replacing my tire.
He looked at me intensely, like a Dutch Mr. Miyagi. “Maybe you don’t communicate very well with your bike!”
I let out a nervous chuckle. “If only bikes had ears and mouths!” I said.
He rolled his eyes, as if to say, soon you’ll learn, you ignoramus.
And so I did (learn, that is).
It came to my attention that every time someone I knew complained about their bike, it would instantly get stolen. “I hope you’re not next!” I said, patting mine. It glowered at me with its lights. Then whispered its first words: Are we really stolen? Or do we just run away?
I decided I needed to change my attitude. I gave my bike a name- Becky Harrison, after a good pal of mine who I felt shared the plucky spirit of my wheeled transporter. I started making sure that my silver saddle bags were closed when I locked Becky the bike up so as to avoid puddles forming overnight. When the opportunity arose, I would always be sure to pump up its tires. Rather than treating it like a pesky child, I made it an extension of myself, like an unborn baby. Cycling became not just a means of getting from A to B but an enjoyable activity, as fundamental to my experience of Amsterdam as stroopwafels and free cheese samples.
As I prepare to leave this lovely city (and perhaps it will only be a temporary leave), I mull over the future of my bike.
“Take me with you!” It whispers to me as we whisk down canals.
“But how?” I reply. “Do I buy you a plane ticket?”
“No, you fool, cycle me home.”
“But I have too much stuff for it to fit in your saddle bags.” I don’t say this aloud, though, in case I hurt its feelings.
If I don’t manage to transport Becky Harrison home, then I hope its new owner, like me, will be suitably short of leg and long of love. I also hope that, unlike me, they’ll be willing to fix the wonky mudguard and abstain from using the saddle bags as a place to store KitKat wrappers. And if they happen to own a bell that doesn’t stop working when it’s raining then that would be excellent. If you know someone who fits this description, then point them in my direction.

 

Phoebe

It’s Not the End of the World – The Sublime On a Small Scale

the end of the worldHow does one track down the sublime? It is not moldy lemons that I am referring to here (haha do you get it??) (sorry), but that feeling of your organs permeating through your skin, of your stomach turning into an abyss and swallowing the rest of you up whole. I remember a few years ago being told that my pet cat had died (R.I.P Oberon Eccles) and suddenly Nothingness was staring me in the face in all its whiskery glory and it took a moment before I was able to scoop myself off the ground and squidge myself into something human-shaped again. Despite the angst I was left hankering for another touch of total dissolution once the initial moment had faded. For practical reasons I was unwilling to buy a new pet, form a bond with it and then murder it, so I limited my search for awful thrills to the realm of the aesthetic and representational. What I learnt was that the best place to find sublimity is on the edges of human comprehension, and what we self-obsessed humans find most difficult to comprehend is the idea of our eventual demise – not our singular deaths. I, like the best of us, am akin to whittling away a rainy afternoon by fantasizing about my own funeral whilst the titanic soundtrack warbles in my mp3, and although I do sometimes shed a tear over the various speeches made about how I transformed people’s lives with my general joie de vivre, how I inspired so many to be kinder and also better dressed, how so many had harbored a deep and passionate love for me and had wished they’d had the courage to tell me whilst I was alive and now it was too late… Wait, where was I? Oh yes, my point is, the whole experience doesn’t tend to leave me feeling existentially shaken. If you really want to look death in the eyeball you’ve got to up the ante and contemplate the extinction of the entire human race.
Whilst Hollywood is all too keen to serve up the apocalyptic on a plate, this plate tends to be lukewarm and you can find yourself wandering through a whole lot of visual rubble before you get so much as a whiff of finitude. To save yourself from such undignified scrabbling, allow me to offer you two novels and a film that should enable you to experience every level of apocalyptic despair from the coziness of your own bed.

Colson Whitehead’s Zone One is a zombie novel with a twist. The twist is that it’s not trashy. In fact, when I started this book I was really disappointed with how un-trashy it was. Then I got over it and learnt to appreciate the descriptions of zombie brains in the same way that one appreciates jazz or fine wine. Mark Spitz, our unremarkable protagonist, shuffles through the streets of New York cleaning up “stragglers” whilst trying to avoid being eaten. It’s a story that insists upon the mundane right until the very last moment, in which you are dipped into a (zombie filled) pool of elation. There is something immensely satisfying about imagining the entirety of the humanity being transformed in such a radical manner, even if this radicalness is constituted by moldy body parts and cannibalism.

If you prefer your apocalypse in a less gruesome form, then I suggest you say g’day to the golden oldie that is On the Beach. Neville Shute imagines a world that has been ravaged by a nuclear world war, causing the systematic extinction of entire countries as deadly radiation lazily drifts down the hemisphere. Like Zone One, Shute’s novel avoids melodrama, thus disallowing you to be distracted from the ontological certainty that, quite soon, everyone will die. Yes, that includes you.

Finally I offer you the Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia, which truly does what it says on the tin. When I was a spotty first year, being taught about Kant’s aesthetics, my seminar tutor suggested we watched this film as a means of getting a feel of the sublime. Merrily I trotted down to the student cinema, only to leave two hours later with a Wagner song in my brain and a splinter of agony in my heart. Unlike Zone One and On the Beach, Melancholia doesn’t just portray the demise of the human race but also the destruction of our habitat, the world. Thus no comfort can be had by imagining Earth still peacefully turning away, unencumbered by us pesky oil guzzling humans.

Luckily scientists predict the world isn’t going to end for another 865 years*, so you’ve plenty of time to experience imaginative recreations of the big day before it finally happens. But, before you scuttle off to gorge on my findings, remember that the sublime can only be felt occasionally. Like all good things, over-usage will result in desensitization. So tread with caution, and only dip your toe into the depths of despair when your mundane life is really and truly in need of a pick-me-up.

Phoebe

*Yeah this seems worryingly soon to me too, but it’s what came up when I did a bit of googling.

The Problem With Using Philosophy For Self-Help

philosophy for dummies

This morning I awoke from an elongated stupor to find myself hunched in a dark corner of the library, surrounded by Nietzsche books and empty budget-coffee cups. Nearby undergrads eyed me up warily. I dimly recalled having thrown a dictionary at them earlier because they were eating fruit too loudly. Looking down at my hands, I noticed the letters U B E R M E N S C H inscribed upon my knuckles. I scuttled to the bathroom to scrub the ink away and when I saw my reflection in the mirror I let out a scream. Not at the sight of my skewed hair and bloodshot eyes, but at the giant fake moustache that was glued to my upper lip.

Like a fool, I had allowed that angry Oedipal Jesus to yell into my soul, and I had been seduced to the extent that I had actually attempted to become him. I tutted at the mustachioed girl in the mirror. “What would your younger self say to you?” I asked. Just two years ago I had formally declared an end to all engagement with Nietzsche, not due to any academic beef, but because I found him so unbearably RUDE. I had tried to look past the arrogance and the abrasiveness for the sake of understanding exactly what the genealogical method entailed, but after one too many lady-hating rants I gave up and turned my attention to Germans with less of a bad attitude (hello Husserl!). And maybe this doesn’t make me a scholar, but it does make me a nice (if somewhat wimpy) human being.

Yet there I had been, just moments ago, consuming Thus Spake Zarathustra with the same vigor that I would usually reserve for a tasty snack.

The truth was, I had been utilizing Nietzsche as a certain means towards an end, and that end was Ultimate Power. I wanted to transcend my immanence. I wanted to be the sheep that stepped away from the herd, and then I wanted to make all the other sheep into my army of slaves.
But why would I, a spectacularly unambitious specimen by nature, suddenly desire world dominion so intensely?

The possible reasons are numerous. Perhaps it’s because I still don’t have a thesis topic and I’m searching for the ultimate form of procrastination; perhaps it’s because I’m riddled with student debts and can’t think of a sensible way to manage my finances; perhaps it’s because I know that the answer is moving back with my parents and getting a job but that just doesn’t feel like personal progress; perhaps it’s because I’m feeling very single but not in a ladies-leave-your-man-at-home way and more in an all-by-myself (literally, because I’m living alone in a shipping container) kind of way…

It doesn’t take Freud to see that the general problem is an increasing sense of a loss of control over my life, of which I have responded to through a manic attempt to become a demi-god. And this desire for mighty power that has recently manifested itself in my academic studies does not end with Nietzsche. As a member of the humanities department, I frequently encounter Foucault on various syllabuses. Many people see Foucault as a depressing determinist, always banging on about discourse and our inevitable place in it and how we are constituted by all these power structures that give only an illusory sense of autonomy and so on BUT if you keep reading Foucault’s oeuvre right up to his dying day, you’ll find that he has a cheeky change of heart and starts giving quite useful self-help. “Be like the Greeks”, I muttered as I flick my way through the The History of Sexuality trilogy. “That will sort you out”. But the weather has not been toga-permitting and the Greeks were not women-permitting. I tried to embody an attitude of modernity through ascetic practices like Foucault encouraged me to, but it ended up with me weeping in bed with empty stroopwaffel packets strewn around me, experiencing something more like postmodern bewilderment than modernist enlightenment.

Heidegger suggested that I try to live more authentically, but I resigned myself to being too caught up in the chatter of the crowds. I even appealed to the philosopher I hate almost as much as Nietzsche: that smarmy, self-important Sartre, but all that stuff about bad-faith only led me to believe that it was in fact Sartre who was acting in bad-faith if he really believed that anyone could take him seriously as a philosopher after the way he’d treated poor Simone.

I dubbed all this reading Thesis-Research, but actually it was me trying to use philosophy for my own ends. In this sense, I was being nothing more than a cheeky neoliberal go-getter. Unfortunately my strivings towards self-actualization have failed, and now I resign myself to sitting in my own squalor, writing this self-pitying monologue instead of doing tomorrow’s seminar reading.

But lessons must be learnt from my miserable mistakes. The reason philosophy cannot be adequately transformed into self-help is because that is not what philosophy is meant for. Unless you’re counting Alain de Bottom as a philosopher, which I am not. We exist in strange times, where neoliberal notions of investing one’s own human capital make us think that if we are not mini-superheroes then we are fundamentally flawed, when actually there are a number of political and economic structures in place that increasingly render a generation immobile. It is valuable to sometimes not try to break through these structures but instead dwell in them, taking scope of our surroundings. Reading decent philosophy is difficult, but this difficulty enables us to pause for a while and be thinkers as opposed to doers. And whilst this might leave you feeling powerless (and, more importantly, jobless), it is still perhaps necessary if we hope to eventually change the system, as opposed to changing ourselves.

By Phoebe Eccles