Jonathan Franzen Brings Us Closer Together in FARTHER AWAYPosted: October 25, 2012
Jonathan Franzen sure is a prickly fellow, no? (I, for one, happened to enjoy the 2006 musical Spring Awakening. I apologize for my ignorance.) In Farther Away, his latest collection of essays, he covers extensive ground—venturing beyond Broadway to intimate realms of the grammatical, sociopolitical, literary, and humanistic. And, of course, the personal. Thankfully, it’s all expressed through the familiar voice of tender curmudgeon—which is precisely what makes his writing so refreshing and succinct. But here, I’d like to focus specifically on one particular essay, “Pain Won’t Kill You,” his 2011 commencement address to Kenyon College.
In “Pain Won’t Kill You,” Franzen compares our present-day obsession with technological likability to the conflicting notion of love—and how those two concepts are in direct opposition. He plainly states, “My aim here is mainly to set up a contrast between the narcissistic tendencies of technology and the problem of actual love.” Perhaps I feel particularly connected to this essay because Franzen and I share the same crap phone: the BlackBerry Bold. (His essay, however, is more than a year old, so it’s quite possible he’s upgraded by now. I, unfortunately, have not.) Moreover, I feel compelled to disclose my own personal disregard for mobile devices and social media. For example, after the browser on my BlackBerry mysteriously stopped working, it took me two months to locate the interest to ask a friend for his expertise on the matter. His reply: “Have you turned off the phone, taken out the battery, and restarted it?” Eureka! It’s good to have people in your life who know things like that.
But back to Franzen. On a fundamental level, I couldn’t agree more with the claims he makes in “Pain Won’t Kill You,” though I am certainly guilty of hypocrisy. (See: this blog.) It seems that by focusing on the slick, uncomplicated nature of what we like, we’re seemingly unwilling to celebrate the messy nature of what we truly love. (I admit, when he starts talking about his newfound love of birds, he loses me a bit.) Franzen begins by discussing the “commodification of love.” You know, engagement rings and cars as Christmas presents. In what he identifies as “technoconsumerism,” our freshly minted technological lives have become further extensions of our sense of self. Per Facebook, we “like,” therefore we are. As Franzen points out, the developers of these types of products are seemingly more concerned with “likeability” than with functionality. Functionality is a baseline endeavor. But here’s where “likeability” in-and-of-itself is a dangerous pursuit, and why this predilection may cause larger problems: “If you dedicate your existence to being likeable…and if you adopt whatever cool persona is necessary to make it happen, it suggests that you’ve despaired of being loved for who you really are. And if 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. Those people exist to make you feel good about yourself, but how good can your feeling be when it’s provided by people you don’t respect?”
In other words, reciprocity is critical to real relationships. Technology today may seduce us with its likability, but it exists purely to serve. And those “likes” we’ve curated are ultimately self-serving, too. Because on an intimate level, what is likability? Is there anything more boring than someone who agrees with you entirely? Or kisses your ass? Someone who can’t match your intellect or humor or passion? Someone who’s merely “likable?”
“The simple fact of the matter is that trying to be perfectly likeable 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, likeable person. Something realer than likability has come out of you, and suddenly you’re having an actual life.”
An actual life. Raw and unpredictable and, at times, even ugly.
“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 technoconsumerist order: it exposes the lie.”
Yes. Real love is actual life—and never a lie. What an important message for a graduating class of college students. For everyone, really. Especially when the source is a tender curmudgeon.
Farther Away: Essays
by Jonathan Franzen
Farrar, Straus and Giroux / 321 pp