The Last Essay
Late-night thoughts on whether life is worth living
This is a late-night essay: the kind of thoughts you have lying awake in the early morning hours; the conversations you have between midnight and last call. I want to talk to you about something that’s been on my conscience. Maybe you can help me think it through. Or not. Then we’ll finish these beers and go.
Late last night I was reflecting, as I often do these days, that life really might not be worth living after all, and I wondered whether my writing were not essentially dishonest. There’s a rough template for an essay in my mind — half-conscious, not very critically examined — not unlike the tonal arc of Romantic symphonies or the mix tapes we used to make: things may get dark and hopeless in the middle, but you leave the reader on an up note, something hopeful and life-affirming. This is true for political op-eds as well as personal essays. First the writer identifies a problem; then they propose a solution: diagnosis; cure. The latter, prescriptive sections of such op-eds are characterized by a peculiar rhetorical tic: the writer resorts to the word must, as in: “Congress must act to restore the integrity of U.S. elections,” “The President must hold Russia accountable,” or ”governments must get serious about greenhouse gas reductions” (a random sampling). In almost all such cases, the word must can be easily and accurately replaced with the word won’t.
It’s hard to keep up a plausible pose of optimism these days, for myself personally, and for the nation and the world. You don’t need me to enumerate the litany of unpromising news; there’s a persuasive case to be made for despair. I spend at least as much time feeling despairing as hopeful — a lot more, really — so why do I feel this obligation to impersonate a wise person, offer the reader reassurance and encouragement, send them back out there with a little pep talk I only half-believe myself? Who am I to afflict the impressionable young with a false sense of possibility? It’s as if it’s a public service I’m expected to render in exchange for the reader’s attention, the way a crime writer has to give you a compelling plot about justice being served to keep you interested while he does his more important work: showing you how irredeemably unjust our world really…