“And yet pain hurts but it doesn’t kill. When you consider the alternative — an anesthetized dream of self-sufficiency, abetted by technology — pain emerges as the natural product and natural indicator of being alive in a resistant world. To go through a life painlessly is to have not lived.”
Jonathan Franzen’s essay on social media, on ‘liking’ as a pitiful, narcissistic dilution of real experience, seems to have been met with wide acclaim; it is quoted everywhere, it seems immediately, obviously true, it resonates. Many of its points are fascinating, but most interesting is the claim above: “To go through a life painlessly is to have not lived.” By asserting the centrality of pain -and thereby of suffering, death, and evil- to human life, Franzen echoes a broadly-held, mostly intuitive sense that the so-called “problem of evil” is not a meaningful philosophical problem at all. That is: it is not hard to imagine how suffering, death, and evil could be vitally important for human life to have meaning, how they could be in fact be necessary for the existence of the good with which we hope to technologically replace them.
Earlier, Franzen writes that
“…the ultimate goal of technology, the telos of techne, is to replace a natural world that’s indifferent to our wishes — a world of hurricanes and hardships and breakable hearts, a world of resistance — with a world so responsive to our wishes as to be, effectively, a mere extension of the self.”
By calling them “our wishes,” Franzen rhetorically trivializes our preferences: to not be killed in hurricanes, to not see our children starve to death, to not be eaten away by disease, to not languish in a life whose circumstances reflect arbitrary fortune, the bad luck of being born poor, marginalized, persecuted, weak. The virtualization of reality is an effort to combat the arbitrary, unearned suffering which has defined our lives since the dawn of the species. Technology seeks to make our agency primary among organizing forces in the universe; we want not to be victims. We want not to suffer, particularly pointlessly. We want happy, safe lives for ourselves and others.
Yet Franzen’s argument insists: a painless life is not a real life, and as a result pain is as integral to the order of human reality as love, as sex, as hope. What is noteworthy is that this argument is so commonly accepted that he scarcely expands on it, offers it as a claim which is prima facie the case. Even in popular culture, it has become something of a narrative trope: in films, literature, even in music one regularly encounters the depiction of nightmare utopias, dystopias, in which the capacity to suffer has been eradicated, in which chance has been eliminated. These depictions show us reduced worlds in which, say, androids provide us with sex without the immense difficulties of relationships, or in which we are genetically modified to be incapable of irrational sorrow. They are not happy stories, though; they invariably assert that something crucial is lost if there is no suffering, no death, no conflict, no evil.
That is: this “telos of techne” is revolting to us even as we seek it.
In a sense, we are like children who rage against the rules and fiats of our parents but desperately depend on them to circumscribe reality, to structure our moral and experiential lives, or we will be terribly deprived, lost. But of what are we deprived? The possibility of heroism? Of sacrifice? Of devotion? Of goodness against evil? And how does suffering structure heroism, nobility, love? And how might one argue that the suffering of others is a morally-acceptable cost for the leavening, as it were, of one’s own reality? It is simple enough to dismiss such questions as superstitious, as epistemologically imprecise; unless one is religious, one can perhaps avoid thinking of the relationship between evil and love for one’s entire life. But only an ideologue would insist that there is no mystery to the human need for conflict, anguish, pain.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, sentenced to a decade of imprisonment and exile in the Soviet Union for critical remarks about the monster Joseph Stalin, knew much about the suffering wrought by evil in the world; even had he not experienced torture and banishment, that he lived through World War II and what followed in Russia would have acquainted him with the full range of human barbarities. The temptation to blame systems of government or economics, ideologies, parties, others would have been enormous. Yet Solzhenitsyn did not think that evil was apportioned to some and not to others:
“If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
In the heart of every human being there is good and there is evil; it is not possible to imagine a human without evil, or at least it is clear that such a creature is not human as we understand the term. To be human is to be divided against oneself, and to be both wounded by the evil in others and saved by the good in them; it is to depend on this ambiguous, moral and immoral heart.
Franzen discusses the insidious redaction social networks prompt: how we are eager to be liked and therefore mask, conceal, censor what is unlikeable about ourselves, falsifying our humanity and acting against the spirit of love in the process:
“If you dedicate your existence to being likable, however, 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.”
To experience the fullness of love, one cannot partialize oneself, amputate those elements of oneself that play poorly on profile pages, accustom oneself to perpetual public performance. That we do so by the hundreds of millions, oddly, answers Solzhenitsyn’s question: “And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” If Franzen is to be believed, it turns out that nearly all of us are.
That we recognize, however, the facile surreality of this act, that authors write op-eds in the New York Times denouncing it while we all nod in assent, seems not only to suggest that the cultural change is not nearly so novel or permanent as Franzen claims -I recall feeling contempt for people who liked my performative personality in high school- but also to offer a kind of glimpse into the popular conception of the world’s moral order, a referendum on theodicy, as it were.
Is it the case that despite our intellectual arguments, we intuitively do not want a life free from conflict, pain, evil? Do we know in our hearts that such a life would be a kind of stagnation, a distracted, superficial trance, an anti-life without the possibility of transcendence? It is discomfiting to say so in the face of the horrors wrought by evil in our world; even Franzen cannot bring himself to the honest conclusion of his argument, absurdly saying that “pain hurts but it doesn’t kill.” But of course pain kills; and what causes pain -evil, chance- is as likely to cause death as anguish. A novelist is unlikely to have a popularly palatable moral worldview, but it seems that even Franzen feels some pressure to redact himself here: our age is the age of technological teleology, and to assert as a lunatic anachronism that pain -the pain of war, the pain of abuse, the pain of crime, the pain of violation, the pain of murder, the pain of inequality, the pain of politics- is necessary to the human experience is sure to prompt the kind of defriending few of us can bear.
a lot to think about but few conclusions. i’m wary of taking a stand on such a loaded topic w/ loaded players. the “you-either-love-it-or-hate-it” dichotomy is strong with this one, which cautions me against being reflexive.
so adding in their unique, combative friendship and rivalry, plus franzen’s pain and recent harsh words concerning dfw’s suicide, what do we get? any way in which franzen is responding to dfw, correcting him, or perhaps trying to outdo him? the abstract, intellectual argument is worthwhile, but the personal, emotional, reactionary subtext might also necessitate a look.