Embracing and Avoiding the Darkness: David Rakoff on Half Empty
I find there are few things more enjoyable than being the first person to interview someone about their upcoming book. You get to watch them work out their ideas on the fly, before they've become solidified through repetition (and my questions, though they might end up being the same ones they end up hearing dozens of times as they promote their book, still seem fresh). And in few cases have I felt that more strongly that when I got to talk to David Rakoff at the very end of BookExpo in New York in May, after three exhausting but thrilling days of interviews (the fruits of which I've been posting ever since, and will continue to, as the books we talked about get released this fall). Tired as I was, I immediately woke up when I sat down with David--he was engaging and warm and funny and we ended up having one of my favorite talks of the whole week, I think in part because he was so thoughtfully and honestly working out what his book was about as we spoke.
I knew his voice--and his sensibility--well from his frequent appearances on This American Life, but the combination of reading his new book, Half Empty, and talking with him about it gave me a much more vivid sense of the coherence and the philosophical insistence behind the humor and the persona that is so obviously appealing in his stories. You can listen in to our talk here, or read below.
Amazon: So David, do you like anything?
David Rakoff: [laughter] You're referring to a piece in the book where I take three trips. Someone did ask me that at a reading, but she asked it in a far less kind way than you do. She asked in this challenging, "Do you like anything?", which is both an honest and a reductive question, because it does seem like I don't like anything, on a really, really cursory and superficial level.
But it turns out that I like everything. I really am absolutely porous to the world. I'm porous to pleasure. I'm open to beauty. I'm frequently stopped in my tracks, many times a day, by being overwhelmed in some sort of aesthetic swoon, because I am at heart a 14-year-old girl.
But I'm scared of everything, and that's I think what she was responding to. So I don't hate the world. I'm afraid of the world, and I'm scared of everything. My entire life is one counterphobic experiment. It's not as bad now. I'm a middle-aged man; I'm 45, and all my coping strategies--it's like those old "fake it to you make it" things, where they used to say, "Well, if you fake-smile, the contractions of those various muscles will, in fact, release the endorphin cascade that will make you feel like actually smiling." So similarly, the coping strategies and those counterphobic experiments that I've had to adopt just to get through my life have turned out that I'm actually not quite as terrified of things as I used to be.
But yes, my default response to anything is "Wha--what was that?!?", when you would say anything. "Would you like to go eat some donuts?" And if I hadn't heard of donuts before, I would be like, "Donuts? What are donuts?" And then, of course, I'd find out, "Oh donuts. Fried dough. How lovely." And then it's like, "Yes, I'd like that." So do I like anything? Yes. I like everything, but I'm scared of everything too.
Amazon: Your coping strategies make me think of the first piece in the book, where you're talking about optimism and pessimism as ways to look at the world. "Happiness" is a very big word in publishing and psychology these days, and I think you're trying to work against that philosophically. So is your pessimism reactive in just being scared, or does it have a philosophy, a kind of outlook on the world as well?
Rakoff: Well that's interesting. I think it's both. The reason the book came about was because my editor, Bill Thomas, had noticed that I have kind of an incapacity to access pleasure in an unalloyed or unmediated way, and he said that's worth exploring. But what became more intriguing to me was the fact that it's essentially value neutral.
The way that I experience the world is not unique by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, I have settled and made my life in a city where, for many centuries now, a self-selecting group of people with a somewhat jaundiced incapacity for pleasure have settled. New York City is sort of known for that. And again, we're not unique; we exist everywhere. But the fact of the matter is, that's as value neutral as having brown eyes; some people do, some people don't.
And what seemed curious to me was that in the culture at large was this kind of optimism, and a gleeful, can-do deaf ear--and an anger--turned towards a darker thought or contingency thinking had really expunged all those emotions from the discourse. You weren't actually allowed to say, "Hey, is anybody worried about how much air there is in this elevator if it gets stuck? What if we run out of oxygen? And if we have to make a new society, who will teach school?" You know, that kind of thing.
And these are the things that go through my mind, and they go through a lot of people's minds. So it's not a call to arms in any way, beyond the fact that emotions that have been tarred with the negative brush are a) not negative particularly, b) felt by a great many people, c) really, really important and even beautiful and worth feeling. And so, it's one of those things, again, where I guess it's advocating for a kind of "let everybody feel what they feel" particularly.
And I'm not talking about people who are so depressed they can't get out of bed--that's mental illness. I'm not doing that 1960's thing where it's like, "Let's let the lunatics take over the asylum." No. If you let the lunatics take over the asylum, then all you'll have is people inscribing things into their forearms with Bic pens, and it's going to be bloody and awful and terrible.
It's more about not everybody's going to be chopping down the forests and making a cabin for themselves. Some people are going to really need to be at home, worrying late at night. Whatever. I'm not stating it eloquently enough because this is the first time that I've had to frame meaning for the book that I wrote.
So it's an advocacy position. Am I pessimistic because I feel that that's the way should be seen? Yes. Absolutely. Anybody who is somewhat pessimistic has the same incapacity to understand optimists that optimists have towards us. Frequently, when you do your mental anxious rehearsal out loud--something else I've learned largely to keep to myself--when you do it in front of optimists, they think you are unhappy, or they think you are trying to ruin their good time. And rarely are you actually trying to ruin their good time; it's just what you do.
By the same token, it can be hard to not see them as kind of sugar-headed dopes. You just want to somehow understand these are cognitive styles and they're different. But in terms of that kind of brand of "American glee" that is unmindful of actual facts, yeah, that I think needs a corrective. And I think we're finding those correctives in short order all over the show, and I think that it's been kind of an unpleasant landing for people.
Amazon: Yeah, but I feel like there is a sense, maybe it's always been the case in America, that optimism is the most productive way to think, that that's the American way. Europe is pessimistic, but America is optimistic.
Rakoff: Yes. Well, there is a certain kind of conflation of optimism with finding a solution to something. I guess that's kind of true. But rather than using the word "optimism," I would use the word "agency." The book began as a germ of an idea about nine years ago. Because about nine years ago I was assigned a piece by the New York Times Magazine to go interview a psychologist named Julie Norem who had written a book called The Positive Power of Negative Thinking.
What she was talking about was this anxiety management strategy called "defensive pessimism," which is not dispositional pessimism. Dispositional pessimism is what I talked about before: staying in bed all day, eating macaroni and cheese, and ruining your life. But defensive pessimism is about envisioning the worst-case scenario that you can and going through a contingency plan where you tick off all the things on the list and thereby give yourself agency. And you can actually do things and move on in the world.
That's not terribly different from what the American brand of optimism is, which is, "I will light out for the territory. What if I meet Indians? What if they're hostile? How will I stave off an attack?" Circling the wagons is actually defensive pessimism in action. Learning to put mud between the logs of your cabin so the wind doesn't come through and so your children don't perish from influenza or whatever--that's actually defensive pessimism.
So, in fact, they're not terribly different. It's actually about agency. It's about claiming agency. But it's hard to tell people that. It's also hard to say that attendant to all that kind of "I'm going to light out for the territory" is, "Do you have enough water? Do you have enough supplies? Do you have some food? How about an epi pen, because one of you is allergic to cats?" [laughter] You know, that kind of thing.
But it makes it sound sort of self-helpy. It's ultimately a collection of essays whose collage form and their disparate elements effect some kind of internal logic. I guess, because the title is "Half Empty," the hope is that ... it's like, embrace the darkness. But, I don't know, get out of bed in the morning at the same time.
Amazon: Yeah. The book itself seems as much a book of cultural criticism, or it's as much an aesthetic philosophy as a personal, self-help philosophy. It's a way of looking at the world that--we used the word "melancholy," which I think is a word that is one of my favorite words and ways of being, and I think it's wonderfully productive just as a way of taking in the world. What does that word mean to you?
Rakoff: I completely agree. Melancholy is ... there's a poignancy about it and there's something very beautiful about melancholy. I mean, you live in Seattle, which has that beautiful gray light which is the light in which I come alive. When the sun goes behind a cloud, I calm right down and I am suffused with this very, very deeply poetic feeling of melancholy.
So melancholy, yeah, it's an abraded emotion. There's some sadness in it but there's a lot of beauty in it. It feels like a very productive kind of state of being. Again, to use the word, it's sort of porous to the world in a way that I think is really fortifying and really important.
Amazon: Yeah. It seems attentive. It's a way of paying attention.
Rakoff: That's exactly it. There are many cultures that have the aesthetic of melancholy. I mean, the Japanese aesthetic has various words, like... It's been a long time since I've been a Japanese major in college, but like, wabi-sabi, yugen. If I recall, yugen might have been an appreciation of the darkness of things, or perhaps it might have been the appreciation of the weathered patina on boards that have been left out in the rain for too long. I can't really remember, but there's all that sort of stuff that appreciates the evanescence and the fact that everything is imbued with its equal and attendant capacity to perish, that makes it that much more beautiful. So yeah, melancholy seems an incredibly important state of being.
Amazon: As a melancholic, do you find Seattle a more interesting subject or, say, Los Angeles, a place you write about in the book, where of course there is no cloud cover but yet seems like an interesting place for you to be?
Rakoff: Well, there is a beautiful kind of melancholy in Los Angeles because of that very chasm that exists between the dream and the reality. I write specifically in the book about Hollywood Boulevard, which is literally a boulevard paved with dreams. [laughter] It's just so achingly sad and lovely and hopeful at the same time, and you just take it to your heart because the dreams are so outsized and so infrequently realized for people that it really is kind of an amazing place to see.
This stretch of sidewalk is dotted all along the way with these absolute dream palaces. You've all heard of Grauman's Chinese Theatre and we all know about the cement outside, but if you go inside, it is an absolute fantasy inside of Orientalist perfection. It's just crazily beautiful inside and I don't think people really know that. They know it in this very, again, reductive way of, "Oh, it's just a theater for tourists." It's incredibly beautiful.
Or the Max Factor building where he used to sell makeup. Again, it's like a Busby Berkeley number. And the woman who probably came out there to be a chorine in Hollywood movies--she's 90-odd and she's still got a Marcel wave and she makes change for you when you go into the Max Factor building, which is now a museum. So the melancholy of that distance between the dream and the reality seems like an incredibly interesting territory worth mapping, so I do like those kinds of places.
Amazon: Well I wanted to talk about the last piece in the book. I guess I wanted to ask what it's like when someone who fears the worst is faced by the worst.
Rakoff: This is interesting because this is the first time that I've talked about the book at all. And certainly, it's the first time that I've spoken out loud about the last chapter, and the last chapter is called "Another Shoe." The book was oft delayed because I was not feeling my best, and I was in a lot of physical pain for a long time. And I thought it was a pinched nerve, and it turned out to be cancer, which was caused by some radiation treatment I got for some other cancer 22 years ago.
So it's weird. I have not spoken about this publicly, and a few things worry me about it. What worries me is that clearly I feel I have some emotion surrounding this thing, and I don't want to be seen experiencing that emotion in a public way. For a variety of reasons. I don't want to be seen to be so moved by my own experience that I would do that in a public way. Which brings up various feelings that I have about personal essay writing in general, and why I bridle at the term. And certainly, I'm not a memoirist. I think there's far too much memoir out there and all that stuff.
But it was an interesting thing to be ostensibly writing a book about embracing the darkness and really meeting it head on, and then having to really face it in certain ways. And there was a period when it looked like I was going to have my left arm amputated. And that came up a few times, and it's still not entirely off the table in my life. And as I speak to you, I'm literally two weeks and one day post surgery.
So it's all been kind of an interesting challenge, and not one that I'd thought I'd really face again for another two decades or so. That said--and I've entirely lost sight of the question you asked, forgive me about that--it was not really that hard a piece to write. I took notes. So I had the notes there, so I had the signposts of what I was feeling, when I was feeling those things.
And the hope is, for that particular chapter, and for all the chapters in the book--but those particularly that deal with more personal stuff that aren't some manufactured, reified experience in some sort of reportorial conceit of things about my life--the hope is that I've somehow touched on something larger than just the personal details of my life.
And the worry is, of course, also, that I would be known for the particulars of my biography, as opposed to the way that I use language. Because I'm far more invested in being considered a writer than, "Oh you must have such an interesting life." I don't want people to know about my family. I don't want them to know about my love life, and that sort of thing, but I do write about something that really happened in my life.
I'm so sorry, Tom. I've completely forgotten what you've asked. What was it like to then experience something very dark when, in fact, I've been advocating for people to embrace the darkness?
Okay. It's rough. And it turns out that truly experiencing the darkness is not something that's terribly productive. I even talk about fear as being a completely unproductive emotion, not even an emotion. It's literally a base feeling. You become an animal, pure cortex and nerve synapse. It's all about avoiding being something's dinner, that's what fear is.
So I say that it's an unproductive emotion, and I don't mean that in an antecedent, kind of "Kennedy-esque," again, American gleeful way: "So therefore, I choose not to feel it." I don't mean it in that way. What I mean is that aside from the very watch-spring evolutionary response of "Get out of here" reason for its existence, otherwise it is useless. It eats away at your timbers. It just destroys you.
So luckily enough, it has been my great good fortune, and through no doing of my own, that the fear I experienced was intermittent, and surely, huge and existential, but as I said, intermittent. So it wasn't anything that I couldn't handle in the long run. But again, that's because of the very fortunate hand I was dealt. You know what I mean? I'm sure there are going to be eventualities--obviously, we're all human, and we all shuffle off. But I turn out to have the normal and requisite levels of denial that anybody does. So the only thing I can say in my defense is that I don't think I advocate unrealistic levels of realism throughout the book, but it does turn out to be interesting, when faced with something as large as what it felt like it was to me, that it turns out that I both embrace and avoid.
P.S. After we turned the recorder off, we bonded over silent movies and I nearly talked him into joining me at MOMA for a matinee of the Lillian Gish silent melodrama, The Wind. Here's my phone photo of Miss Gish in full prairie glory: