Necessary Evils


The problem with the typewriter is the way I interpret its sound. Like all writing machines, it produces drafts, but its click clack implies more. Think about All the President’s Men, or any other movie about a newspaper before the 1990’s. That mechanical firing promises the production of final products. Those serious newsmen faces. My feeling from them isn’t that their intention is to produce mutable products.

But in that scene where Bob Woodward (Redford) punches the pages out and Carl Bernstein (Hoffman) pens in corrections in black ink (or was it blue?), even then there is a seriousness in the air as those pages roll off the platen.

I collected Olivetti’s when I was a teenager, but worrying about the future availability of printer ribbon was stressful, so I gave them away. Now I write with a mechanical keyboard, and my letters appear on an LED screen. They are neither here nor there. Sometimes, when my anxiousness calls for it, I print out the pages so I can put marks on them. That is wasteful, and it feels wasteful. It feels like a sin. But so does writing words that in some sense don’t exist. A corrupted or missing file somehow seems scarier than a ruined or lost sheet.

I imagine a pot-bellied journalist (Philip Seymour Hoffman as Gust Avrakotos in Charlie Wilson’s War, but a journalist instead of a case officer for the CIA) in a shouting match. He is shouting because there is something about his output that he wanted to be final. Instead, revisions are proposed. Without this argument over revisions, it is hard to imagine the seriousness that precedes it. Typewriters aren’t tentative. Imagining harmonious revisions makes the click clack seem strange. But that’s what was happening in that All The President’s Men scene.

And even ignoring revisions, those pages are only input for the press. Are the pages ever saved? Maybe if its an historic story?

Which evils are necessary? Writing is hard work, and doing it rarely feels like the right thing to do. It is so subjective. My mind wanders. I wonder if focusing so intensely on a subjective discipline isn’t harmful for my mental health. Isn’t it more salubrious to focus on problems with real solutions, like equations and lines of code? 

By the way, that modulation at the penultimate syllable of the line, “Go fuck yourself, you fucking child.” Have you ever heard anything like that in a movie? That shift is involuntary, psychogenic.  Can someone do that on purpose? Maybe if they practice enough. But it seems more likely that it was involuntary, the product of a real feeling. 

Writing is hard, so I try to adopt habits to facilitate it. But it feels wasteful in every way. It is either unstable, as with LED, or parasitic, as with cutting down trees for taking notes. And isn’t thinking what’s important, anyway? Why is writing necessary?

What is the problem with this essay so far? It’s that these problems are boring. These are problems to be solved or swallowed, not committed to essay.

Fine, fine. 

The Superego

As a child, I had a habit of reading beyond what I could comprehend, so I was reading about Freud’s ideas before adolescence, though very little since then. I never had feelings for the idea of the superego.

No, my inner critic was not the internal representation of my towering circle of elders. I heard my dad. I knew what he was saying. My conscience was something else.

Maybe so, but what about now? This question has recently opened up an awkward crevasse. I had read an essay by Maria Popova about the banality of self-criticism. It struck me as true. Its point is that our inner critic is usually unimaginative. But, wait—why? I’m not unimaginative. 

And then I was doing an exercise from the book Conscious LovingThe exercise is to, at least one time throughout the day, notice when you feel stuck and to say in your head, I am stuck. 

And then you ask yourself, “Whose voice is that?”

Some of the exercises feel forced, but this one flowed. I did not need to strain to make out whose voice it was. I could even see her, sitting on the loveseat, in her blue microfiber robe, eating Tostitos chips and cheese, halfway watching whatever was on a small television set crammed in the corner of the same closet that the loveseat was crammed into, halfway watching nothing. That was my mom.

Maybe that got me thinking, without realizing it, about the sources of my spontaneous impressions and self-talk. Suddenly that obscure, slippery word seemed to turn over and speak clearly. My parents were monotonous. Their criticism wasn’t nuanced. The word didn’t seem apt then. When I was still around them, they were distinct, but now that we are decades apart, they have merged.

But I suppose Maria Popova’s parents’ criticism was more sophisticated? So maybe the job of the superego is to synthesize and flatten the criticism, make it more conservative? Or maybe Maria Popova’s inner critic is way more liberal than mine, or even way less aggressive or pernicious, but the superego, always in rivalry with the more urbane ego, sounds the same when talked about, even by strangers, even when those strangers have utterly different internal experiences from my own, because it is always put in contrast with their other representatives. The superego is that internal experience that, contrasted with our other internal experiences, sounds negative and tedious and stifling. So does that mean that my ego and id  are also less spontaneous and egalitarian? I mean, clearly. But even if it weren’t, that would just mean that there was greater contrast, which would cause tension and anxiety and mood swings. Check, and check.

But who is it in the psyche that is always updating the face and voice of the critic? 

The Self-aware Woman on Main Street

Why am I willfully wasteful of my resources?

Just down the street from my apartment building is a convenience store. It is a sad place. The owner is an obese Christian who smokes cigarettes and throws them on the sidewalk. As I was walking home in a gray afternoon, I saw a young woman in an olive green jacket and torn jeans leaving it. Her eyes were close set and round. They were the eyes of a girl who stares at a bug and sees the bug itself, but she was lost in some internal examination, and my stomach hurt for her.

“I don’t have any money left because I spend it on this crap.”

She pressed past the door and was off down the street. I could not make out what she was carrying.

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