I was listening to Leonard Cohen, as you do. Closing Time. I feel like lot of Cohen’s oeuvre has an element of desperation, of time slipping through one’s fingers. There’s a line in that song, “I lift my glass to the awful truth, which you can’t reveal to the ears of youth”. You know what he means, but it’s ineffable; there aren’t words to explain it. You try to find words, and when you fail, you start wondering whether you understood it at all. The Leonard Cohen forums have tried to nail it down. I think they had the same trouble as I did.
There’s an aesthetic I return to that I feel rather embodies the Awful Truth: decay, like dying towns, sticky glasses from last night’s party. It’s this concept that joy is fleeting, and nothing really lives up to the image you have of it in your head. It’s the listlessness and faint sense of desolation of the fundamental discovery that life has no meaning. There’s no real or proper way to be human, no way to be an adult, and everyone is desperately faking it as best they can, while at the back of their minds they wonder what happened, why life isn’t what they expected it to be, where is that future they had dreamed about as a child, where everything fell into place and they knew how to get out stains and pay the mortgage without having to look up the walkthrough online and they had a sense of being complete instead of the ramshackle accumulation of life experiences that they actually are…
If, as some have suggested, writing is the eternal search for Truth, I think this is the sort of truth we’re looking for: a meaning. A meaning that extends beyond the natural order of eat-fuck-die. The search for meaning, and the attempt to understand the lack of it. Which is tricky, for a frightened ape.
There’s a twitter post that became a meme, about God creating humanity:
god: i have made Mankind
angels: you fucked up a perfectly good monkey is what you did. look at it. it’s got anxiety
— YOU HAVE WON A HAM (@jon_snow_420) October 28, 2015
It resonates; with the internet we have been given the ability to anonymously announce our most fundamental fears, and humans seem to have the capacity to be anxious about almost anything. Our self-awareness separates us from our “purpose”. Most other species just live their lives, without worrying about meaning and the future and what happens when we die. We tell ourselves stories about everything, about how the hunt will go (planning), about what happened once upon a time (history), about morals and justice and dreams. But this capacity to imagine has us thinking that other people somehow have it figured out. We worry we’re not human enough, that we’re failing to achieve something intangible, that there’s some meaning out there that we’d find if we were smarter or sharper or more diligent. That everyone knows something we don’t, and we’re just struggling to keep up the pretence.
And then eventually, in some bar at 2am when the tone has changed to the desperate attempt to avoid life crashing back in around the ears, and you’re surrounded by people but feel closed off from them like a veil has fallen between you, you realise there is no meaning, there is no anything, just stories we tell ourselves in the dark. Fiction, poetry, music, history, science, all part of the ways we try to construct meaning, to build something new on the rubble of old dreams. Heroes to lead us through the darkness, monsters to help us understand it. It’s all shadows on the cave wall, all maybes and if-onlys.
This is the Awful Truth. You can’t reveal it to the ears of youth, partly because it feels cruel to rip away the last of the illusions of childhood like that, and partly because when you’re young you’re convinced it doesn’t apply to you. You have dreams and ideas and a life you want to build, and the sky’s the limit, because it’ll be different for you, you won’t fall into that trap. You’ll make a life you love. And you know, on some level, that it’s a lie you’re telling yourself. I have seen Gen Xers telling one another what they want to be when they grow up, because that lie is a hard lie to let go of, and we cling to it even though we know what it is.
But the trouble is that even if your life is amazing, and you do what you love, you have a great partner and travel the world and there’s plenty of money, even if everything is as good as it could ever be there will still be some 3am after too many glasses when you’re alone with yourself and there it is, standing in front of you, the Awful Truth, asking, in the darkness of your mind, is this all that there is?