This blog is not supposed to be personal or confessional. I know this. And I know that I’ll probably regret admitting what I’m about to admit for reasons bigger than breaking blog rules. But I must confess, I, personally, have been having a low-level anxiety attack for about a week now. When I think back on it, I’ve had many of the symptoms for longer. Since the end of January or so. But no, now that I think of it, I felt this way back in September, October and November too. Being a certain type of person, I’m probably always on the verge of high anxiety. However, being on the verge of it and in the midst are very different states. The distinction between then and now is a kind of heart-burn-restless-sick-to-the-stomach-weariness. I don’t sleep very well. I pace. My conversations with people are strange and drifting. I eat both more and less than I should. I procrastinate in such a way that my skin dries out and my eyes sink farther back into their sockets. Little things set me off. Mostly they have to do with imagining someone else thinking something unkind and, worse, accurate about me. That I am not up to snuff at work. That I am not a particularly good friend. That I will never amount to much. My mind gets much more specific, but I’ll spare you the detail.
The excuse for the unpleasantly personal confession is inclusion of myself in a larger trend. I am, apparently, not the only one. I am trendy. You know, the economy and such. It’s f@#$ed and so is our place in the world. We’re all in the midst of this shared feeling, and I use the term midst deliberately, because the mood is palpable, as if the air has become soupy, or maybe granular. We are walking around pushing our way through this stuff, and when we stop to rest more of it settles on us. I was telling my friend Eric about my ailments and he reminded me of Planet Money’s report about the increase in broken teeth. We are all biting down harder these days, it seems.
All of this, except maybe the procrastination-eyeball thing, is something Anderson Cooper could tell you. And as I tell my students, any issue that CNN thinks they know how to dissect is one in which we’re going to have a hard time finding the pancreas and the precious, precious bile inside. But I’m thinking of another angle: a new literature of anxiety.
Stick with me a moment. For a while now, we have seen a lot of stories about the apocalypse, and even more stories about the shadowy conspiracies behind the guy behind the guy who runs everything. Our worst fears seem to cause us to retreat to fantasies of survival (McCarthy’s The Road, anything with Zombies) and malevolent Wizards of Oz (The X-Files, Lost, etc.). Surely anxiety about the precarious and delicate nature of late capitalist comfort and the void left in a godless universe are at the root of these horror stories.
The anxiety we’re all feeling is a bit different though now, I think. We are worried about the end of all this, of course, even if some of us think that it – and I’m referring to whatever it is that’s closest, for you, to that over-generalizing phrase The Way We Live Now – has already outstayed its welcome. We are still titillated by our own plans for what to do at the apocalypse and we are still comforted by the notion that all this badness in the world is someone else’s fault. These days, however, feel closer to the good old hide-your-head-under-the-desk-when-the-A-bombs-coming-raining-down-even-though-we-know-it won’t-help days. We feel completely naked to whatever the world has in store but also somehow complicit in both our own exposure and letting what is out there in the dark get so big and toothy. I’m not saying that anything has fundamentally changed in the world this past year. Most of us are still hurtling deeper into debt and box office receipts are bigger than ever. I am claiming that a lot of people, a lot of American people in particular, feel as though something big has shifted though.
And so, I suggest that we need new literature for this moment. We need old literature too, of course, and there are plenty of classics and also-rans that apply to this moment. I suppose all I’m saying is that I’d like to get something out of all this heartburn. I’d like some poems and stories that tell me the truth, literature that aches with its own complicity, heart-racing for the nothing behind it, darting eyes seeing the same old stuff anew.
I ask you: what would that new literature of anxiety look like?