I Am a Meme Now — And So Are You
Maybe wisdom is accepting that you don’t get to decide who you are
Apparently I am a meme now. This was brought to my attention a couple of weeks ago, when a friend forwarded me an internet post that superimposed a line from one of my essays over a cat’s face. It was a two-panel image, setup and punch line: In the first panel we see the words “the rewards of being loved” (cat appears to croak with feeble hope); in the second, “the mortifying ordeal of being known” (cat droops despondently). The same friend later forwarded me a number of variations on this theme using other meme templates: My words were put into the mouths of characters from Parks and Recreation and Real Housewives, purple universe-decimating Marvel villain Thanos, and other pop-cultural sources I didn’t recognize. For the record, the original phrase, taken from the last line of an essay, called “Oof” (published in the New York Times under the title “I Know What You Think of Me”) was: “… if we want the rewards of being loved, we have to submit to the mortifying ordeal of being known.” The internet’s consensus seems to be a collective shudder of dread in the face of this bargain: they are the unhappy cat, accepting that he is doomed to solitude.
I’d intended this line to express a fairly common apprehension about the risks of intimacy, but it seems to speak specifically to a greater-than-normal horror of human interaction peculiar to the internet generations. Reading memes as a sociological text is probably only one step above haruspicy or poststructuralism, but it seems fair to say that the widespread popularity of this sentiment does not augur well for the emotional health of the young, circa 2019. They react to the prospect of intimate relationships in pretty much the same way they do to videos of people base-jumping off TV towers or letting colossal Australian spiders crawl across their faces. As one commenter put it (using the words of another meme): “That’s gonna be a no from me, dawg.”
You can’t write — or live — if you imagine the whole world watching over your shoulder, waiting for you to screw up, ready to mock or vilify you.
It’s not as if they’re wrong: it’s scary putting yourself out there, letting yourself be seen, vulnerable to people’s wrong opinions and dumb judgments. I’d sooner let a stranger see me naked than show them a first draft, which is like letting them see my naked brain. Whenever anyone calls my writing “brave” I assume it means I’ve said something stupid without realizing it. One reason I don’t smoke pot is because if it’s the wrong strain I’ll end up lying awake rigid with embarrassment: Why did I publish all those personal things about myself? What is wrong with me? I’ve been a semi-public figure for a long time, but, even now, there’s still a slight visceral twitch of resignation whenever I hit SEND on an essay, a moment of steeling myself, an internal fuck it. You can’t write — or live — if you imagine the whole world watching over your shoulder, waiting for you to screw up, ready to mock or vilify you. Which, thanks to the internet, it now is.
The culture of unabashed appropriation on the internet only makes more literal the loss of ownership to which any artist has to resign themselves. Any time you publish a piece of writing, or release a work of art into the world, you relinquish control over it. People get to interpret it however they want, projecting their experience and biases onto it, twisting it to fit their own history and issues, sometimes misunderstanding it entirely. (E.g., that commenter who mistakenly paraphrased my official policy re: being loved/known as “That’s gonna be a no from me, dawg,” when it was, in fact, his own.) I’ve received seven-page-long, single-spaced letters from readers, sometimes confiding things they’ve never told anyone before, or elaborating incomprehensible theories they’ve refined over years, ostensibly in response to my essays, though they seemed to me only tangentially related to what I thought I’d written. Cartoonist Lynda Barry says it’s the artist’s job to bring 50% to a work of art; the audience supplies the other 50%. People don’t need much of a prompt to loose a torrent of meaning. I have a friend whose husband accidentally became a prophet when he was 10, in the evangelical church he grew up in. He’d blurt out some cryptic D&D nonsense about dragons and fortresses, and congregants would writhe in revelatory ecstasy and cry, “IT’S TRUE — HOW DID YOU KNOW?”
This wouldn’t be worth writing about if it were only a problem for artists. We are all public figures, whether we want to be or not, and I don’t only mean because of the internet: social media just exacerbates the same old problem of being a person in the world, humiliatingly visible, despite all your efforts to put up a front. Seeing your own words transcribed in someone else’s handwriting, or a cartoon you drew with new text inserted in the word balloon, is just a more concrete version of what happens to us all, existing helplessly in other people’s heads, being misunderstood or misrepresented, distorted in their memories, captives of their perception. But what I wish I could tell all those children of the internet, holed up in their rooms, isolated online, is that they can only imagine the worst of relationships: they think that what another person will learn about them is what they see in themselves — the squirming, icky, insecure mess inside. They don’t know yet that the ways in which they’re secretly screwed up and repulsive are boringly ordinary. The issue isn’t that you’ll be despised for who you really are — that, as a friend and I used to say about girls we were dating, “she’ll realize.” It’s scarier than that: it’s that you lose control over who you are. Other people get to decide. And it may turn out that you’re not who you thought you were.
As an artist, you don’t get to decide why people love your work. (Some artists bridle at their appropriation by the public, even if they’re beloved; the actor Leonard Nimoy wrote a book in 1975 called I Am Not Spock.) My favorite cartoonist, B. Kliban, studied under surrealist Richard Lindner and practiced sketching after the masters at the Uffizi; he ended up becoming famous for his googly-eyed cats and spent his last years cranking out T-shirts and calendars. I try to write essays in the manner of Montaigne and Mencken, but now I, too, have gone to the cats. I would describe my reaction to seeing my writing reanimated as meme as “nonplussed,” maybe “bemused.” It always does some slight violence to a writer’s intentions to yank a sentence out of its context and present it as if it were a complete, isolated thought, like a maxim or commandment. I am not in the business of pretending to be in possession of any wisdom, or of telling other people what to do: this is the realm of self-help and advice writers — in other words, of charlatans. Part of me worries it’s an indictment of my prose that it should lend itself so well to Tumblr memes, the digital equivalent of needlepoint samplers. In fact, that line has literally been embroidered on a hoop for sale on Etsy. Sometimes people hand-letter it to make it appear deep — the sort of thing that’s called “word porn” by people who haven’t read a book since The Deathly Hallows, and is attributed, more often than not, to Marilyn Monroe.
But the things people love about you aren’t necessarily the things you want to be loved for. They decide they like you for reasons completely outside your control, of which you’re often not even conscious: it’s certainly not because of the big act you put on, all the charm and anecdotes you’ve calculated for effect. (And if your act does fool someone, it only makes you feel like a successful fraud, and harbor some secret contempt for them — the contempt of a con artist for his mark — plus now you’re condemned to keep up that act forever, lest she Realize.) My last girlfriend found my flaws, the things that annoy even me about me, amusing. When you break up with someone, you don’t just lose them, but a version of yourself. You don’t even get to know what your children will remember you for; it probably won’t be what you thought were the important moments. I still remember my dad snoozing next to me in the theater at a long, slow science fiction movie I was keen to see when I was 12. It still touches me to imagine how little interest he must have had in that film. He probably would not have wanted to be immortalized in his sleep, but there he is, snoring gamely beside me.
At some point you have to accept that other people’s perceptions of you are as valid as (and probably a lot more objective than) your own.
But, as The Velveteen Rabbit teaches, we don’t become fully real except in other people’s eyes, and in their affections. At some point you have to accept that other people’s perceptions of you are as valid as (and probably a lot more objective than) your own. (Leonard Nimoy wrote another book, 20 years later, called I Am Spock.) This may mean letting go of a false or outdated self-image, including some cherished illusions of unique unlovability. For years I felt guilty and fraudulent every time my girlfriend called me a good boyfriend until, eventually, I realized she’d actually made me one. It’s getting letters from readers or corresponding with fellow authors — certainly not writing or publishing books — that makes me feel like a real writer. And it wasn’t until I started teaching, and my students treated me as though I were an adult, that I noticed I’d accidentally become one.
Shit — what if I am wise? It must be some sort of testament to my rhetoric that one of my sentences has become a meme. Nietzsche’s epigrams, Oscar Wilde’s bon mots, and Twain’s one-liners are often reposted (and misquoted, and misattributed), so I can’t complain about the company. As a writer who uses his own life as material, I bank on the assumption that I am a more or less representative specimen, that whatever is true of me is likely true of everyone else, so it’s reassuring to know that something I’ve written has resonated out there. It’s especially gratifying to connect with young people, since I still remember how important the writers who spoke to me in my own youth were. And, after all, the youth whose bad taste we mock are the same posterity whose critical esteem we covet. Maybe I’m not the kind of writer I thought I was; maybe my words do belong inscribed in cursive on inspirational posters. I am the cat, both hopeful and despondent. It’s not the fate I would have chosen, but, in the words of Albert Einstein: