It is either comforting or not at all comforting to know that Silicon Valley didn’t invent the temple of life-hacking, the ruinous belief that one might perfect oneself and master existence: to know that this conceit is much older, basically post-Enlightenment modernity’s favorite way of doing things. Perfected under American Protestantism, given a cozy sheen by the techno-progressivism that emerged from Western research institutions after World War II, and now distinguished by a frantic strain indicative of life’s realities after the Great Recession, the only difference is that now there are more media platforms for spreading it. Dr. Oz and Bill Gates are winning the game. Why aren’t you? Get thee to a library, and check out some Horatio Alger.
Artists have done their bit of pushing back. Wallace Stevens put his shoulder to the wheel with “The Poems of Our Climate” (1937-1942), which emphasizes that a life of “complete simplicity,” an existence stripped of all ambiguity and uncertainty and longing, would be pretty awful. Or rather, striving for a life like that is awful, because only a lunatic would try to get it.
Clear water in a brilliant bowl,
Pink and white carnations. The light
In the room more like a snowy air,
Reflecting snow. A newly-fallen snow
At the end of winter when afternoons return.
Pink and white carnations – one desires
So much more than that. The day itself
Is simplified: a bowl of white,
Cold, a cold porcelain, low and round,
With nothing more than the carnations there.
Say even that this complete simplicity
Stripped one of all one’s torments, concealed
The evilly compounded, vital I
And made it fresh in a world of white,
A world of clear water, brilliant-edged,
Still one would want more, one would need more,
More than a world of white and snowy scents.
There would still remain the never-resting mind,
So that one would want to escape, come back
To what had been so long composed.
The imperfect is our paradise.
Note that, in this bitterness, delight,
Since the imperfect is so hot in us,
Lies in flawed words and stubborn sounds.