My Misspent Youth, an Essay by Meghan Daum

You can read Meghan Daum’s My Misspent Youth here.


“My misspent youth”.

The words resonated with me immediately. Don’t misunderstand me – I’m still in my twenties and hardly at a vantage point from which I can holistically evaluate my circumstances and the decisions that have brought me here. I’m finding, though, that the self-assuredness so plentiful at eighteen tends, for most people at least, to dwindle right around now.

I am no exception, and apparently, neither was Meghan Daum.

Daum wrote My Misspent Youth in 1999, when she was twenty-nine,disenchanted, and on her way out of New York. In it, she writes frankly of the price tag dangling from her youthful dream, and nineteen years later, her sentiments could not be more relevant. This is a tale that most Americans have lived or are currently living.

After graduating from Vassar College, Daum began the merry chase for her dream in Manhattan. It was a place that represented everything she aspired to as a young woman. A global center steeped in culture and intellectualism, where creatives like herself could – no, must – be in order to actualize their professional goals.

What she didn’t realize at the time (and what young person does?) was that every dream we have dreamed has been dreamed before – and someone’s already put a price on it. When we’re young, we see dreams as mere concepts, but then we grow older. We see more. We struggle. And many of us come to realize we never truly understood what we grew up envisioning, that once the logistics come into play, a dream looks very different in the real world than it had in our heads.

And so it is with my own life, as I’m sure it is in most everyone’s. As soon as I grew old enough to imagine the future, I began deciding for myself the ideals and people and things that would be in it. And of course, I never realized that these these fantasies weren’t just given to me for free. They were being sold to me.

I think most people come to experience what Daum describes in her essay. This absurd moment when you’re halfway toward reaching your goal and instead of congratulations, you’re given a bill.

I like how Daum puts it here:

These days, being a creative person in New York is, in many cases, contingent upon inheriting the means to do it.

Except it seems to me that New York is no longer unique in this.

In a way, it’s hilarious, as this revelation would be particularly soul crushing to anyone who thrives on creative work.

It isn’t all doom and gloom though. As bleak as her financial situation must have been, Daum ends her piece on a rather positive sentiment, one that I’m inclined to agree with. Yes, people will always find ways to profit on the dreams of others. Yes, dreams are never as simple as they are when first conceptualized. But as we grow and learn, we sometimes find ways to get around these realities.

And who better to find them then creatives?

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A Hanging, an Essay by George Orwell

It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide. This man was not dying, he was alive just as we were alive. All the organs of his body were working–bowels digesting food, skin renewing itself, nails growing, tissues forming–all toiling away in solemn foolery. His nails would still be growing when he stood on the drop, when he was falling through the air with a tenth of a second to live. His eyes saw the yellow gravel and the grey walls, and his brain still remembered, foresaw, reasoned–reasoned even about puddles. He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone–one mind less, one world less.

George Orwell wrote A Hanging in 1931. You can find it here, courtesy of the Gutenberg Project.

Wow.

It’s not necessarily the quality of the writing – though it is superb – that I marvel it. Rather, it’s the sheer emotional confusion Orwell’s essay has left me in. More than I ever have with any other essay, I truly feel as if I had walked alongside Orwell through his experience.

Let’s start with some context. The essay retells one morning during Orwell’s service in the British Imperial Police in Burma from 1922 to 1927. At the time, Burma was a province in Britain’s Indian Empire. Burma gained its independence in 1948, and today, the sovereign state also goes by the name of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar.

Orwell’s essay tells the story of a man in the last moments of his life. The man is a prisoner – for what, Orwell never says. We know neither his name nor his history. All we know is that he had been imprisoned, until this particular morning when he is walked down to the gallows, where a bag is placed over his head and he is hanged.

From the beginning, there is a stark contrast between the tension Orwell feels and his companions’ blatant sense of dehumanizing urgency. It’s clear from Orwell’s description of the man that cared enough to humanize him:

He was a Hindu, a puny wisp of a man, with a shaven head and vague liquid eyes. He had a thick, sprouting moustache, absurdly too big for his body, rather like the moustache of a comic man on the films.

Compare that to the words of the jail’s superintendent:

“Well, quick march, then. The prisoners can’t get their breakfast till this job’s over.”

This contrast creates a heavy feeling of conflict within the reader, and it emulates, it seems to me, the conflict Orwell felt at the time. This feeling is amplified when, along the way, the procession is halted by the joyful antics of a dog let loose. The dog even jumps up and tries to lick the prisoner in the face. Here, glee and dread intermingle, and it’s an uncomfortable feeling, to say the least.

Orwell manages to restrain the dog, and they continue until the man makes it to the gallows and a rope is noosed around his neck. The man begins to cry out in a chant of sorts:

“Ram! Ram! Ram! Ram! Ram!”

The chant goes on for what feels like forever, and as a reader, I felt just as uncomfortable as Orwell writes he and the surrounding crowd did.

And then the floor drops from beneath the man’s feet. He dies, as we knew he would from the start. And as soon as he’s confirmed dead, Orwell and his companions are hit with this palpable sense of relief and, weirdly enough, joy. The strangest part of it all is that I felt it too. Orwell notes the absurdity of it all, of the jolliness in the air and the laughter that follows, and he never makes an attempt to explain it.

I won’t either. I wouldn’t even know where to begin.

The Detective Story by Jorge Luis Borges

I would say in defense of the detective novel that it needs no defense; though now read with a certain disdain, it is safeguarding order in an era of disorder. That is a feat for which we should be grateful (Borges 134).

While flipping through Borges’ book, On Writing, his essay The Detective Story caught my eye as, admittedly, I have little experience with the genre. That struck me as strange, since it seems like exactly the sort of thing I’d be all over. Anyways, I’m not sure that I would attribute this lack of experience to the “disdain” he mentions in the above quote.

I do believe I know what he’s referring to, but I wouldn’t say the detective novel is unique in this regard, as most genre fiction deals with it to some extent. Taking fantasy and science fiction, two of my favorite genres, we can see that both have been so heavily influenced by just a handful of authors that many of their conventions are continually repeated over the years.

I say this, for example, with J.R.R. Tolkien and his seminal The Lord of the Rings trilogy in mind. How many fantasy novels have had tall, elegant elves with pointy ears and gruff, ax-wielding dwarves since then? Or some mystical embodiment of pure evil laying dormant for centuries before needing to be vanquished by some unexpected hero?

Borges dedicates the greater part of his essay on Edgar Allan Poe, who, as it turns out, is credited for being the father of the detective story. I don’t know if that’s common knowledge, but I had no idea! I find it odd that I knew that he almost certainly suffered from crippling depression, that he had married his wife, Virginia Eliza Clemm Poe, when he was 27 and she was 13 (whoa, dude – different time, different custom, I guess), and that the cause of his death is a matter of debate… but I didn’t know he founded an entire genre!

Borges’ praise is mixed though, as you can see in the quote below:

Now, Poe was a man who, as we know, lived an unhappy life. He died at the age of forty, given over to alcohol, melancholy, and neurosis. We have no reason to enter into the details of the neurosis; we need only know that Poe was a very unfortunate man who lived predestined for misfortune. To free himself from it, he took to ostentatiously displaying and perhaps exaggerating his intellectual virtues (Borges 127).

JEEZ, Jorge. Kick a man when he’s down, why don’t you.

Anyways, one such case of this, according to Borges, is Charles Auguste Dupin, a creation of Poe’s and the first detective in literature. He very pointedly mentions that Dupin, the genius detective, is who Poe believes himself to be, and that Dupin being French is just Poe (kind of) covering his tracks.

When Borges isn’t roasting Poe, though, he shares a couple of the most prominent traditions detective stories:

  1. The detective is always highly intelligent, and the case is solved as a function of that, and not more realistic reasons, like informants or carelessness on the part of the criminals.
  2. The narrator is usually said detective’s friend and is quite a bit less intelligent, presumably to bridge the gap between readers and the detective.

He also leaves us with five detective stories by Poe, along with other notable entries. I’ll be making a point of reading all of these during my challenge.

By Poe:

  • Thou Art the Man 
  • The Purloined Letter
  • The Mystery of Marie Roget
  • The Murders in the Rue Morgue
  • Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym

By others:

  • The Invisible Man by G.K. Chesterton
  • Death and the Compass by – well, look what we have here – Jorge Luis Borges

All in all, The Detective Story is an essay that makes a few interesting points but wanders in subject far too much to really drive those points home. I had to read it twice through because I wasn’t quite sure what exactly his point is. I’m convinced I’ve yet dialed in on it, but I don’t think I’ll be giving this one a third read. Onwards!

Once More to the Lake by E.B. White

Of the three essays I’ve read so far, this one is the most open to interpretation. Once More to the Lake is a deeply personal piece about a lake in Maine that White’s father had taken him to as a child and that he too had taken his own son. White speaks of the permanence of the lake and by extension, life. On returning to the lake, it strikes him that while people come and go, the roles and relationships they fill stay largely the same. He sees in himself the father he once had, and he sees in his son the boy he once was. The longer he stays at the lake, though, he begins to see that it’s not quite that simple and clean. Certain things have changed, like the technology and culture that surrounds them.

It seems at first that these changes bother him. And I can understand that. They mar an otherwise simplistic view of life. But White seems to accept these changes, just as he accepts that the cyclical nature of life that had so entranced him also signals his inevitable death.

Reading this essay, it occurs to me how tempting it must be, as a parent, to see the path your children walk as one and the same as your own. In its broad strokes, I see the truth in that sentiment. Not all parents, however, see much further than that, and therein lies the source of a rift so commonly experienced between parents and their children. E.B. White does not seem to fall into that trap, though, as he notes that despite his initial inclinations, there is more to his son’s life than what he himself has already experienced.

This is a piece I will need to revisit if I ever have kids of my own. Considering my, uh, current lack of funds, however, I hope that does not happen anytime soon. (I prefer pets myself.)

The Spike by George Orwell

Ennui – noun. A feeling of listlessness and dissatisfaction arising from a lack of occupation or excitement.

The Spike is an essay Orwell wrote back in 1931 when he was living out a nomadic lifestyle out and about in London. This was all part of a social experiment he was doing, and according to Wikipedia (what, you think I just know these things?), this adventure became the subject of his first book. I haven’t read it myself, but it’s called Down and Out in Paris and London. “The Spike” is a colloquial term for an English workhouse, a place where people down on their luck could find room and board and opportunities for employment. This essay is about a weekend Orwell had spent in the Spike.

Um, wow. Not really sure what to say. After reading about the abject conditions Orwell had to endure with his fellow tramps, I almost feel filthy myself. There’s no way to truly know an experience without having gone through it oneself. With language, a writer can bridge that gap in understanding, but never all the way, I think. With The Spike, Orwell gets as close as one can get. The next time someone complains about mess, I’m going to direct them to this essay. Here is what I consider to be the most disgusting paragraph I might have ever read:

It was a disgusting sight, that bathroom. All the indecent secrets of our underwear were exposed; the grime, the rents and patches, the bits of string doing duty for buttons, the layers upon layers of fragmentary garments, some of them mere collections of holes, held together by dirt. The room became a press of steaming nudity, the sweaty odours of the tramps competing with the sickly, sub-faecal stench native to the spike. Some of the men refused the bath, and washed only their ‘toe-rags’, the horrid, greasy little clouts which tramps bind round their feet. Each of us had three minutes in which to bathe himself. Six greasy, slippery roller towels had to serve for the lot of us.

Jesus, George! I don’t know what I’m more impressed with, his dedication to his nomadic experiment or his ability to evoke pure revulsion in his readers.

Our late companions were scattering north, south, cast and west, like bugs into a mattress.

Here’s another notable quote. Throughout the essay, Orwell is incredibly persistent in maintaining this filthy imagery. Yet it doesn’t come off as heavy handed. I’ll have to think on this some more, but I suspect this has to do with how the substance of the essay is well matched with the description of it. In other words, he’s not just describing things in a disgusting way. With concrete details, he’s able to establish that this is all part of the reality of the experience. The repulsiveness in his figurative language therefore seems justified.

The essay is a powerful and intimate look into the lives of the homeless in 1930’s England. It’s fascinating in an absolutely horrible way. While I don’t believe I could ever understand homelessness without experiencing it myself, I come out of this piece with more of an appreciation for how difficult it was and still is. The most striking aspect in this piece is Orwell’s description of how people tend to dehumanize the homeless, to treat them as if they had done something irredeemably wrong in simply being in the circumstance they’re in. It’s so strange to me that even to this day, we act like the homeless are somehow less deserving of the basic things the average person gets to enjoy.

This is an essay that remains relevant today. Orwell makes some very interesting observations not just about homelessness, but about people in general. Scroll up to the top and you’ll find a link to the essay, kindly provided by Project Gutenberg. Read it. But just be warned, this is not something you’ll want to read between bites of supper. If you’re hoping to keep that supper down, that is.

On Expressionism by Jorge Luis Borges

About seven years ago, a friend of mine gave me a copy of On Writing by Jorge Luis Borges. It’s been sitting on my shelf ever since. No more excuses. Let’s see what this Borges fellow has to say.

Today’s pick is his essay titled On Expressionism. If you didn’t already know (I didn’t), expressionism was a movement in which artists aimed to convey emotional experience over physical reality. An example of this would be Edvard Munch’s The Scream (I know, yikes). According to Borges, expressionism was born in the reaction to World War II, a time of seemingly random destruction and pain and fear. In the spirit of these intense emotions, artists set aside perfection and instead opted to stir powerful feelings in their audiences, even if they had to warp reality to do so.

I’ll close this post with a quote. “In the best expressionist poems there is the vigorous imperfection of a mutiny.”