The Post-Break Up Emails of a Natural Born Polemicist

Des: Aren’t you a bit of a cad for leaving town with your girlfriend in […]

David Zahl / 6.25.14

Des: Aren’t you a bit of a cad for leaving town with your girlfriend in the hospital?

Jimmy: It might look that way. I’ve been through this before. After graduation Laurie and I were going to break up, but the same day she came down with terrible back spasms. I hung around the hospital all summer, almost bankrupted her parents, and as soon as I left town she recovered. By going away and putting an ocean between us, i.e. making a definitive break, Charlotte’s likely to recover much faster.

Des: What makes you think that putting an ocean between you necessarily means a definitive break?

Jimmy: That’s a depressing thought.

These lines from Whit Stillman’s Last Days of Disco sprang to mind when I read Tim Kreider’s excellent column for the NY Times, “Controlling the Narrative”.

There are any number of reasons why clean breaks at the end of a failed relationship are so hard to come by. Maybe we’re holding on to some lingering hope of reconciliation, maybe we don’t want to accept responsibility for the hurt we’ve inflicted on someone, maybe we find the drama exhilarating. Whatever the case, ‘clean breaks’ are incredibly rare. Advocating for one with a friend who’s truly heartbroken is an exercise in futility. They know full well how continued interaction brings continued pain, how it only tends to make things worse, but in these situations, knowledge and agency tend to be just as separated as the couple in question.

Kreider puts his finger on another reason clean breaks are so uncommon, one that’s near and dear to my mocking-heart:

One reason so many exes cannot seem to stop talking to each other during their breakups — making furious, ill-advised late-night phone calls and crafting exquisitely damning emails even as they’re vowing never to speak to each other again — is that they’re struggling to wrest control of the narrative. They’re like antagonists at the climax of a melodrama grappling for the last weapon, telling each other No, this is what happened, here’s what went wrong, I’ll tell you why it’s over. Some of this motive informs almost all writing — you are finally having your say, getting the last word in, telling them all How It Is.

Certainly some of my own essays have been efforts to better articulate my side of a continuing dialogue or argument I’d been too slow-witted or timid to formulate in real time. Writing is an artificial arena in which to exercise control, where we can mash the world into a shape we can stand to look at. And control is inherently aggressive. It is, if you think about it, absurdly hubristic to presume that your version of events is the Truth, that you of all people are entitled to tell us what happened, let alone why.

Tim’s starting point for this mini-essay will be familiar to those who attended the 2014 NYC Conference: his own retreat from the scabrousness that marked his earlier writing/drawing (of which he gave us a number of memorable examples!). Suffice to say, “excising aggression from your art turns out to be a tricky business” – !

We’ve heard before how we are born storytellers, creatures who cannot but imbue our life stories with morality (and law). We do this on a national level via history books, and we do it on a personal level in things like testimonies. Kreider takes that diagnosis further, suggesting that we are born polemicists as well, sending our post-breakup emails out into the world with increasing frequency and boldness.

Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. Rhetorical outrage has a long and proud tradition, and serves a number of worthy purposes (“calling a thing what it is” for example)–dialogue just isn’t one of them. Tim even lists a few of its greatest masters, e.g. Twain, Mencken, etc. No doubt we could add our favorite theological practitioners (both Martin Luther and St. Paul jump out), writers whose diatribes have had a profound and clarifying effect. Inspiring even!

Yet it’s hard to imagine those great polemicists ever wanting the form to become the dominant mode of communication, as some would argue it has in the age of the Internet. Like all forms of violence, there’s a cost, not just to those at whom the words are aimed, but to the one wielding the sword as well. Speaking from experience, the internal toll it takes may be too high. Non-stop defensiveness and reactivity–whatever the subject (or object!)–is simply a terrible place to live. Plus, it’s a lot harder to rant well than we tend to think. These days most polemics don’t really deserve that word–intellectual sensationalism is more apt.

Of course, some might say that when “clicks” equal revenue, the triumph of polemic is a foregone conclusion. But the allure isn’t primarily economic. Comments are free, after all. Methinks it has more to do with original sin. Control freaks that we all are, post-Eden, naturally that’s where our “discourse” gravitates when it has the room to do so. Which isn’t to suggest that we should automatically embrace the opposite approach. Kreider is quick to point out that ‘objectivity’, or what he calls dispassion, has its own dangers:

Dispassion is a double-edged instrument: As a writer you can find empathy and compassion for someone who, in real life, gets on your nerves, but you can also look with unsympathetic lucidity at someone whom, as a fellow human being, you respect and love.

Once you become genuinely interested in a subject it becomes very difficult to prevent yourself from writing about it — tact, privacy and personal loyalties notwithstanding. Interest is a kind of love, and love is without conscience, heedless of bounds or propriety…

This all hits pretty close to home. The posts we write that have a polemical edge invariably get more traffic than the ones that are merely out of interest, however heartfelt. They’re probably more exciting, certainly more visceral. Laying aside the inherent contradiction involved in talking about ‘grace’ in an ungracious or overbearing way, it is very tempting to write more of them.

So I sympathize with why more and more websites on all sides of the aisle are following the lead of places like Slate, abandoning all pretense of fairness with headlines that fit the “No, That Thing You Think Is Right Isn’t” template. They are writers, they want people to read what they are writing, and control–which is what querulous headings like that offer to both those who are pro and con–is a lot more appealing than open-endedness or “dispassionate” curiosity.

What makes Kreider’s column so special, though, is where it ends. Instead of standing in judgment over the scores of trolls and ideological wonks whose unflitered rage is being worked out 24/7 online, Kreider sees himself, and he empathizes.

I won’t say that writers or artists are more sensitive than other people, but it may be that they’re less able to handle their own emotions. It may be that art, like drugs, is a way of dulling or controlling pain. Eloquently articulating a feeling is one way to avoid actually experiencing it. Words are only symbols, noises or marks on paper, and turning the messy, ugly stuff of life into language renders it inert and manageable for the author, even as it intensifies it for the reader. It’s a nerdy, sensitive kid’s way of turning suffering into something safely abstract, an object of contemplation.

I suspect most of the people who write all that furious invective on the Internet, professional polemicists and semiliterate commenters alike, are lashing out because they’ve been hurt — their sense of fairness or decency has been outraged, or they feel personally wounded or threatened. Writing may ultimately be less an offensive weapon, like the proverbial rapier, than a shield.

Amen. I may be writing myself into a corner here, but a focus on the Why over the What strikes me as our best hope for survival in a media-saturated context that repaints reality in increasingly strident (and conflicting) colors. If there’s another way to summon patience and compassion for the voices that barrage us, externally and internally, I’m all ears. After all, the psychology behind over-long critiques of ‘antinomianism’ and over-long critiques of ‘legalism’–just, you know, for example–is pretty similar. (The only difference I can see is that one of them would actively deny their shared depravity. Take that!).

We are all controlling the narrative. That’s just what we do. It’s what Bill Maher does and what Sean Hannity does. Men do it and so do women. It’s what I’m doing right now. It doesn’t mean that some narratives don’t contain more truth than others. But it’s also what makes the narrative about the God who gave up control for the sake of an embittered world so extraordinary. The God who stayed silent when he could have defended himself, who, by his death and resurrection, made a definitive break with the cycle of wound and threat, granting his children–in an ultimate sense, at least–the assurance to experience their pain head-on. In a world of self-justifying polemicists, it may be the one story that truly bears repeating.

Don’t like it? What can I say — that’s just How It Is.

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9 responses to “The Post-Break Up Emails of a Natural Born Polemicist”

  1. David Zahl says:

    Apologies in advance for that insanely creepy Mark Twain/Will Vinton clip! I couldn’t resist.

  2. Matt E. says:

    A very nice post. Thanks.

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