The Art of Not Living

On Laura Riding’s Anarchism is Not Enough, Jim Carrey’s Kidding, and Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle

Not all artists are in perpetual conflict with their parents. But for those whose parental relationship is far from “good enough”—to use child psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott phrase—disillusionment with their progenitors can be the impetus of their artistic practice.

In a short essay called “Myth” in Anarchism is Not Enough Laura Riding accuses adults of conspiring to protect each other from reality by maintaining, tacitly, the fantasy that one will not die. What begins in infancy and should come to an end in adulthood doesn’t. She writes, archly, “When the baby is born there is no place to put it,” and so a “temporary scaffolding” is set up for it. Her idea of scaffolding is akin to Winnicott’s “transitional object” which, by facilitating their capacity to self-soothe, fosters the baby’s developing autonomy. Whatever the transitional object is at the outset (blanket, stuffed animal, ritualistic practice) for Winnicott, if all goes well, it develops, later in life, into culture and religion. An adult is someone who has learned to grow out of the transitional object.

But for Riding, there is no transition. The transitional object is permanent. The apparent replacement of the transitional object for the baby by a permanent, legitimate, non-illusory object for the adult is not indicative of a true state shift. Instead, Riding insists, the scaffold remains, illusion is perpetuated but just changes form; blankie becomes temple.

Whereas Winnicott sees disillusionment as something that is gradually introduced as part of “good enough” parenting, for Riding, the child’s disillusionment about the mythical transitional object, a disillusionment which is a prerequisite to maturation, is merely replaced by another, permanent illusion.

The baby is placed on a “permanent altar to ephemerality.” The adult-baby, for Riding, exists on the very same altar. This altar, she writes, is the myth. 

The object of the myth is to give happiness: to help the baby pretend that what is ephemeral is permanent. It does not matter if in the course of time he discovers that all is ephemeral: so long as he can go on pretending that it is permanent he is happy.

It becomes “the religious duty of each to keep on pretending for the sake of all the others, not for himself.” That is, the baby may grow into an adult who doesn’t want to perpetuate the myth but continues to do so, for the sake of others, and because others do.

Poetry, the poet, is the exception. Instead of perpetuating the myth of permanence, the poet makes, as Riding beautifully puts it, an “art of not living.” Poetry

knows nothing. It is the art of not living. It has no system, harmony, form, public significance, or sense of duty. It is what happens when the baby crawls off the altar and is resolved… not to pretend… in the art of not living one is not ephemerally permanent but permanently ephemeral.

The poet’s “art of not living” doesn’t reject eternity or immortality per se. How could it, when poems “live on”?

What the poet rejects is the rejection of death, including those rejections of death with pretenses to realism which romanticize violence and thus render death unreal, for instance the countless television shows which represent death in ways that allow for the continuation of the myth.  

Kidding starring Jim Carrey, Catherine Keener, and Frank Langella, grapples with the question of how the myth is constructed and what it might take, what it might mean, to overturn the altar. The main protagonist is the beloved star of a children’s show, the angelic, Mr. Rogers-adjacent Mr. Pickles (played by Carrey). His sister, played by Keener, a puppeteer, makes the puppets. His father is played by Langella who, between this show and The Americans, is typecast as the baby-faced grandpa secretly running a brutal program. In Kidding he is a businessman who monetizes his children’s talents at once facilitating their careers as profitable television entertainers, while also controlling them, negating any artistic ideas they may have that could compromise the brand.

The picaresque show within the show, its motifs and imaginary places, turn out to have been drawn from the repressed trauma of the mother’s abandonment of the family, at once symbolizing and hiding Mr. Pickles’ loss in plain sight. Millions of people watch the show, unknowingly bearing witness to Mr. Pickles’ unconscious working through of his mother’s disappearance, his first experience of grief and the spur, in childhood, for the artwork that becomes the source material for his father’s lucrative business. When one of Mr. Pickles’ twin sons dies in a car accident, this early experience of grief starts to catch up to him. For a time, he continues to perpetuate the myth, going along, so to speak, with the program.

But when his marriage falls apart, he falls apart. He makes a decision to shatter the myth, to climb down from the “altar” of pretend permanence by making a Mr. Pickles episode about death and grief. But his father, legally in control of the show, refuses to allow it.

Mr. Pickles becomes ever more maniacal in his determination to air the episode. In this battle with his father, his iconic gentleness and wholesomeness begins to crack and he is overcome by murderous aggression, hostility, and impulsivity. It is these angry energies that give him the will to finally shatter the myth, breaking the mold of received goodness to locate the deeper virtue of truth.

As Mr. Pickles, the son, begins to remember what really happened and interpret what the show’s dream-like iconography really refers to, his father simultaneously loses his memory. He no longer knows where or “when” he is, mistakes one person for another, and loses control of his entertainment empire.

It is as if the father had all along tried to prevent the shattering of the myth because to admit to ephemerality is to be set adrift in time. Or, as if in the family’s economy of memory, there is a fund of mystification and once his son remembers what really happened, the father’s hold on reality slips, as if it had been premised, all along, on mystifying his children. Once they are demystified, the mystification has to go somewhere, as if it abhorred a vacuum, and is returned to sender. 

Both in his determination to overcome his father and in his art, Mr. Pickles is an idiot in the way that the philosophers describe the idiot, as Socrates is described: a counter-cultural figure who stands stock still thinking in the street (standing there thinking, he comes to stand for thought) against the un-thinking grain of traffic, the traffic which traffics in the myth. In The Scent of Time Byung-Chul Han writes that this kind of “idiot” is disappearing because so much capital is generated by self-exploitation, self-surveillance, self-calculation and self-monetization, all of which obviate the contemplative mood of the idiot/philosopher.  

For those who, early on, fall, are pushed, or “crawl off” the “permanent altar to ephemerality” that Riding describes, whose beginnings are punctured by disillusionment, they learn, not the myth, but poignantly, another version of “the art of not living”: the art of hiding, of repressing, of bearing it, of enduring. This is the formative coping strategy for Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose autobiographical series My Struggle also has, at its center, embattlement with a father.

Like Mr. Pickles, Knausgaard’s painful paternal relationship is what drives his work. Until he tries to shatter the myth by doing a show about death, Mr. Pickles isn’t conscious of how deeply his father’s control, exploitation, and manipulation pervade his life. When he realizes its extent, he fights back.

Knausgaard was never under any illusions about his father and perhaps for that very reason, he can’t break away. There is no awakening for him: he has never had the luxury of the myth. Instead, as soon as he is old enough to acquire alcohol, he begins to drink heavily, getting blackout drunk and doing things that recreate the shame and terror he felt as a child. He drinks to the seemingly-liberating point of finally not caring, only to wake up in wrenching states of fear and humiliation.

Knausgaard is influenced by Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, but whereas Knausgaard keeps returning to the father, circling back to the wound of his father’s abuse and cruelty, Proust’s original suffering has to do with his intensely longed for, devastatingly out of reach mother. She is loving, kind, but unavailable while Knausgaard’s father, a frighteningly punishing and pathologically controlling man, is always unavoidably around, a terrorizing presence.

What does it mean to spend your whole life, much of your creative energy, working through the unhappy, brutally disappointing parental relation?

It is as if there are only two choices: to make an “art of not living” out of it, or just live with it, which is no life at all.

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