The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck

It’s Stoicism.

While The Subtle of Art of Not Giving a Fuck contains revealing and profane stories of personal dissipation and blogging-fueled awakening, at its core is the timeless message of the Stoics: life is short. Make better choices with your time.

Despite its roots among the ancient Greeks, Stoicism is a philosophy that’s still relevant today. First practiced by men such as Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, its core tenet is that while we can’t control circumstance, we can control our response to circumstance. Born from troubled times, the Stoics admired people who played the cards they were dealt, no matter how bad, searching for a way out of difficulty.

The Obstacle is the Way in other words, a (much better) book that popularizes this ancient belief system with examples from throughout history.

What makes The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck unique is its rejection of happy talk. Mark Manson shreds the relentless positivity of the self-help industry which is not helpful at all. Divorce, illness, joblessness – sometimes life is just going to suck and trying to talk yourself into happiness won’t get you there.

In fact, concentrating on being happy will just make you less so, for it is an emotion that flies from you as you seek it.

Manson prescribes the doctrine of the ancient Greeks: don’t worry about happiness, for you will be dead soon.

Instead, focus on being useful. Put aside your illusory dreams of riches and fame. Be a better person today, to the people around you, for that is the ultimate measure of a life.

Books and Beer: Everybody Behaves Badly

Bell's and behaving badly
A Hemingway-themed beer to go with a Hemingway-themed book.

For the friends of Hemingway in 1920s Paris, everything was dated B.S. or A.S. Before the publication of The Sun Also Rises, their lives were complicated and largely anonymous. After Sun, their flaws were exposed to the world.

The story of the making of this literary masterpiece is told in Everybody Behaves Badly, an account of Hemingway, his friends and the events that inspired the first modern American novel of the 20th Century.

I paired the book with Bell’s Two Hearted. One of the early IPAs, it’s been a favorite ever since it first surprised my taste buds on a 100 degree day at the Capital Fringe Festival. Tangy and citrusy, it defines summer to me.

Named after the Two Hearted River in Michigan, a favorite vacation spot for young Hemingway, and the setting for one of his most famous short stories, it’s perfect the beer pairing for a book about Papa at work.

And it was recently named the best beer in America.

What does it take to create a novel? For Hemingway, it meant betraying nearly everyone in his world – mentors, drinking buddies, literary rivals and even his wife – as he strived to become a giant in American letters.

The Sun Also Rises was a revolution when it was published in 1926, a fusion of high/low style, in which Hemingway took postmodern “less is more” prose and married it with a scandalous story of dissipation among the idle rich. What lifted it above a drunken yarn was the epigraph from Gertrude Stein, “You are all a lost generation.” This defining quote, as well as the title, turned the novel into a representation of youth scarred by war, seeking for a meaning in a landscape without God or authority.

The novel is less a story and more transcription of a disastrous trip to see the bullfights in Pamplona. Following the debacle, Hemingway wrote the book in a period of weeks, not even bothering to change the real names of people that he used in the first draft.

The characters in Sun are all real, and scarcely disguised from their actual counterparts. The most appalling depiction is that of Harold Loeb, who admired Hemingway with almost slavish devotion. In return, he gets mocked in the novel as Robert Cohn, a Jew who doesn’t know his place, with the temerity to romance Lady Brett, a woman that he certainly doesn’t deserve. It was a portrayal and a betrayal that Loeb never got over and one that he spent decades trying to understand.

After the publication of the book in 1926, there was a craze to be like Lady Brett, the hard-drinking sex symbol of the novel. Like her literary counterpart, Lady Duff Twysden was a broke alcoholic of a dubious lineage. Fleeing debts and family complications, she ended up in Santa Fe, before dying of tuberculosis. Hemingway, cruel to the end, told his biographer that her casket was carried by former lovers, who dropped it at the funeral – a fictitious tale.

Her husband in the novel, Mike Campbell (the real Pat Guthrie), the very model of the dissipated English upper classes, died of a drug overdose, owing money to bars and hotels all over Paris.

Depicted as trying to trick Cohn into marrying her, Frances Clyne (the real Kitty Cannell) went on to one of the most fascinating lives of all the people mocked in The Sun Also Rises. After surviving Paris during Nazi occupation, she become a game show guest, noted for her expertise in everything from timeless glamor to surviving prison. One subject she wouldn’t discuss: Hemingway. She thought he was a bastard from the very beginning.

While the backstories in Everybody Behaves Badly are fascinating, what makes the book great is the story of how Hemingway created his masterpiece. Everybody Behaves Badly is a writer’s book – I’ve never read a book that does a better job explaining how a novel actually gets written, showing how Hemingway took real events and transmuted them into his novel.

One character Hemingway leaves out of the book: Hadley, his wife. The Paris Wife depicts her as crushed by this omission, knowing that she was losing her husband.

By the time The Sun Also Rises is published, Hemingway was moving on from the woman who subsidized his early writing efforts for a richer catch: the heiress Pauline Pfeiffer.

Thirty years later, in the posthumously published A Moveable Feast, Hemingway tried to blame the pernicious influence of rich friends on his decision to leave Hadley. They said that Hemingway deserved someone more stylish than doughty Hadley.

But, as F. Scott Fitzgerald predicted back in 1926, with every major new book, Hemingway would have a new wife. After Pauline would come Martha Gellhorn and Mary Welsh.

Write what you know. That’s the cardinal rule of writing. For Hemingway, that meant mining his own life for the material to create The Sun Also Rises. It’s his best book and the novel that frees American literature from its fussy and florid predecessors. Like a good IPA, it’s a sharp and refreshing shock to everything you’ve experienced before.

Exit Right: Lives of the Apostates

The lives of those who abandoned liberalism are examined in Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century. Whittaker Chambers, James Turnham, Ronald Reagan, Norman Podhoretz, David Horowitz and Christopher Hitchens see their political lives examined in this profile of apostates.

What makes a man switch parties? It’s not just a question of changing an affiliation but often means leaving your friends, family and profession behind. The personal is the political.

Whittaker Chambers was a Soviet spy who discovered the error in his ways, his life a hopeless tangle of Christian belief, suppressed sexuality and a devastating family history. Secrecy was an easy fit for him and he left his world of subterfuge only when realizing that his own life was in danger.

Daniel Oppenheimer makes the point that there’s rarely a “road to Damascus” moment in political conversions. Instead, it’s a slow change in beliefs, often accelerated by practical concerns.

For example, Ronald Reagan faced the end of his acting career following WWII. A Roosevelt Democrat, he found a new calling in touring General Electric plants and speaking to employees. GE executives treated him well, offering a fresh arena, a new stage for the man who longed for the spotlight. Did the Democratic Party leave him or did he discover a more receptive audience on the other side of the aisle?

The saddest case is Christopher Hitchens, whose life marks the sputtering end of the neoconservative movement. A natural contrarian, he railed against dictatorships for years. But liberals, embodied by the poll-testing Bill Clinton, never did anything about the evils in the world. When there was a chance to finally right a wrong, using American power, he took it, reverting to a view of imperial power that shaped his youth. The United States would civilize the world, like Britain once aspired to, a project that lies in ruins in the bloody sands of Iraq.

Irving Kristol, the godfather of the neoconservative movement, once said that a neoconservative was a liberal who had been “mugged by reality.” Neocons watched the Democratic Party move left. They stood still – losing friends, families and livelihoods in the often wrenching process of political change.

Today, we see a Republican Party that has been captured by a conman, casting aside Reaganite principles in favor of a small, mean, America First philosophy. As for the Democrats – what do they believe in? Is the party merely a vehicle for rewarding coastal elites?

In this era of political turmoil, millions of Americans are confronted with the agonizing choices that faced the men in Exit Right. Do you stay loyal to the old faith or do you turn apostate?

James Buchanan – Worst President Ever?

Buchanan Memorial

Covered in green pollen and tucked in a corner of Meridian Hill Park, it’s a monument that attracts little attention. Dog walkers and runners pass by the bronze sculpture without a second glance. A seated figure, looking down, on a marble plinth.

It’s James Buchanan, the worst President ever, according to a new biography by Robert Strauss.

If you remember Buchanan at all, it’s for doing nothing as Southern states seceded from the union after Lincoln’s election. But you don’t become the worst President though sins of omission; you become the worst by making a series of terrible decisions. In four short years, Buchanan:

  • Lobbied for the Dred Scott decision by the Supreme Court, believing that it would settle the issue of slavery. Instead, it spread the bacillus of this poison to the North, whose citizens now found themselves legally obligated to help slavers.
  • Failed to intervene during the Panic of 1857, an economic crash caused by Dred Scott, for it unsettled the issue of whether future states would be slave or free. Emigration to the west dropped, railroads failed and millions went broke.
  • Made a martyr out of John Brown by handing him over to Virginia to hang for his role in the Harpers Ferry raid.
  • Allowed Southern states to seize federal forts and armories after the election of Lincoln, arguing that while states had no right to secede from the Union he had no right to use force against them.

After the Civil War, Buchanan was condemned as a “doughface”, a Northerner with Southern sympathies. His photo hung in stores with “TRAITOR” written under it. In Worst. President. Ever., there’s a story, probably apocryphal, of Buchanan fretting in his Pennsylvania estate as Lee’s armies approached, finally realizing his misdeeds.

Buchanan has his defenders, however. John Updike examined the life of his fellow Pennsylvanian in Memories of the Ford Administration, a novel mixing fact and fiction, arguing that Buchanan and the malaise-filled 1970s were both misunderstood.

The life of Buchanan becomes relevant only when America faces a leadership crisis. Then, our thoughts turn back to history, to the worst possible outcome. By this point in his term, Buchanan had ushered in the Dred Scott decision, a very lawyerly interpretation of the Constitution that united anti-slavery forces. A deal was no longer possible. As Lincoln said in 1858:

A house divided against itself cannot stand.

The Buchanan Memorial remains, forgotten, overgrown, a convenient sleeping spot for the homeless. Worst President Ever, an ignominious title for James Buchanan and one that may soon be taken from him.

Good Read Alert: The Sympathizer

The Sympathizer

Fiction requires the suspension of disbelief. Novels aren’t true but they have to feel that way, whether they’re about Hobbits from the Shire or jaded exiles in 1920s Paris.

I started Moonglow by Michael Chabon and put it down halfway through. The book strides the line between memoir and novel and succeeds at neither. There’s a scene where Chabon’s grandfather and another man attach explosives to the Key Bridge during WWII to tweak local authorities. Maybe because I live in Washington, and have crossed the bridge numerous times, but this scene did not ring true with me. The tale seemed impossible, as did Moonglow, which read like a shaggy dog story, despite the good reviews.

I did not have that problem with The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, which captured me instantly, from the very first line:

I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces.

The book is a confession, written to his jailer, as a nameless secret agent recounts his sins during the Vietnam War. We get his story, and the story of the war from the Vietnamese perspective, as well as a wry account of refugees in America in this tour-de-force of a novel.

It’s a little too long. A hundred pages could be excised from its length but there’s hardly been a novel published in the past ten years that I haven’t felt the same about. Still, there’s not a false word in this work of fiction. Nothing breaks the spell of disbelief.

The Sympathizer deserves the Pulitzer Prize for that reason. It’s a powerful story that feels true. And that’s the test of great fiction.

Ernest Hemingway: A New Life

Ernest Hemingway: A New Life

I’m a writer. I’ve read a lot of biographies of Ernest Hemingway – it’s practically a requirement of the profession.

The first biography of Hemingway I read was the one that Papa wrote himself – A Moveable Feast. It’s a slim and sentimental ode to Hemingway’s early years, romanticizing poverty and Paris. And not exactly true. Hemingway uses the book to settle old scores and falsely claim that Pauline, his second wife, stole him from his first.

Michael Reynolds has written a series of books chronicling Hemingway’s life, such as Hemingway: The 1930s. They’re the best source for a comprehensive account of the author and his works.

The book that stands out for me is Hemingway’s Boat: Everything That He Loved and Lost. It’s a different kind of biography, more of a profile of the people around Hemingway rather than the man himself. And it’s fascinating, showing him as a bully and a braggart – but also hugely devoted to his friends and family.

I was reluctant to read another Hemingway bio but then I saw Ernest Hemingway: A New Life. With the 1922 portrait by Henry Strater on the cover, it’s a beautiful book.

Ernest Hemingway: A New Life is a different kind of biography, one that focuses on the themes in Hemingway’s life:

Trauma – If Hemingway was alive today, he would be diagnosed with PTSD. He suffered the trauma of war, nearly losing his life during WWI. Afterward, he suffered guilt, believing that the brave died while he lived. He also felt like a fraud, being an ambulance driver rather than a proper soldier. His trauma went unrecognized and untreated – as it did for millions of others.

Women – A man married four times has a complicated relationship with women. His mother was famously domineering and Hemingway didn’t even attend her funeral, blaming her for his father’s suicide. He needed a wife, afraid of being alone, yet he cheated on all of them. Interestingly, his best novels, such as The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls, all came into fruition when he was leaving one wife for another.

Sex – An academic industry exists to parse the sexual subtexts of Hemingway’s life and work. Zelda Fitzgerald called him “a pansy with hair on his chest.” His public image as a man of action was largely true – but it was also true that he was bookish and sensitive. He was the type of man who seduced women and then bragged about it. Psychologists can speculate if these hypermasculine displays concealed a more conflicted nature.

Reputation – Hugely competitive, Hemingway not only wanted to bed the best women, he wanted to write the best books. From the beginning, he looked for his place in the literary canon, placing himself up there with authors like Mark Twain. The decisions he made, such as his marriages, were made to further his art. He had a habit of marrying wealthy women so that he could write.

Madness – The Hemingway family is littered with suicides and mental illness. Hemingway, his father, his brother and his sister all killed themselves. Hemingway’s son, Gregory, died in a women’s prison, after being arrested by the police. He was going by the name Gloria at the time. Hemingway said that his son had the “biggest dark side” of anyone in the family, “except me.” Hemingway died after succumbing to the depression that had plagued him his entire life.

Ernest Hemingway: A New Life emphasizes with its tragic subject, elevating the author to hero, not for his public image, but for his creative accomplishments in the face of so much pain and struggle.

The War That Ended Peace

the war that ended peaceIt was the war they said couldn’t happen. Europe had enjoyed a century of peace. Commerce between the nations was exploding thanks to new inventions and ways of doing business. Knit together by trade, communications and royal marriages, a war in Europe was unthinkable.

Moreover, the leaders of the European powers knew that a general war would lead to the end of their empires. Russia had barely survived its defeat by the Japanese in 1905. The Austro-Hungarian Empire was a seething cauldron of nationalities desiring freedom. Turkey was the sick man of Europe, with France and England eying its territory. The German Kaiser feared a revolt against his rule as much as he did the coming war, while the British felt necessary to fight to maintain their global empire.

In the years leading up to 1914, the Europeans had muddled through crisis after crisis, deftly avoiding a general conflagration. Yet, following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the continent slowly slid into the war that would consume them all.

This vital period is the subject of Margaret Macmillan’s The War That Ended Peace. She deftly examines the motivations of the Great Powers, as well as the men that led them. War was not inevitable, but the result of mistakes and miscalculations. Europe could have remained at peace, for there was a burgeoning anti-war movement in France and other countries, as well as the first stirrings of international labor. With her profiles of the people and nations of the period, she is careful not to assign blame, writing sympathetically from the perspective of the combatants, whose aims and beliefs were not that different from our own. This was a war in which everyone could claim to be acting in self-defense. Austria-Hungary went to war to punish the Serbs, Russia mobilized to protect Serbia, and Germany felt compelled to quickly defeat France before it would be overwhelmed by the Tsar’s troops.

One hundred years ago, the center of world civilization consumed itself in an unnecessary war. The War That Ended Peace should be required reading for today’s leaders, who glibly assure us that everything will remain as it’s always been. History has shown us the folly of this thinking.

 

The Up Side of Down by Megan McAardle

The Up Side of DownMegan McArdle has failed. By her own admission, she has failed multiple times, from her love life to her career choices. Which makes her the perfect person to write the book on failure.

The Up Side of Down argues that we all must learn to fail a little better, a little faster and to, most importantly, learn from the experience. There is no growth without failure, whether we’re talking economies or individuals.

McArdle bolsters her case with examples from business, medicine, physchology and economics. Discussing everything from the learning styles of children to the Solyndra debacle, she offers a kaleidoscope-look at the varieties of American failure.

And she makes a really important point on failure – we’re a nation founded by people who couldn’t hack it in the Old World. It wasn’t comfortable lords who built this country but starving peasants willing to risk a sea voyage for the opportunity to start anew. These failures created the greatest nation on earth.

One of the best chapters in the book discusses the plague of long-term unemployment, a problem once unique to Europe that has become an American scourge. McCardle writes with great compassion about people who have been unemployed for longer than a year, and the cruelties of the job market that keep them that way. She likens unemployment to a dark room that you’ve stumbled into. The people who get out are the ones who keep moving, pursuing multiple opportunities in hopes that one of them will pay off.

The Up Side of DownMcArdle’s career illustrates this principle. An MBA who was jobless following 9/11, she (among other activities) started blogging, which led  to positions at The Economist, the Atlantic and Bloomberg View. Blogging was just one of several different options that she pursued during unemployment.

It is to our benefit that she found success as a blogger. McArdle is one  of the best explainers of economic ideas (far better than the needlessly wonky and overrated Ezra Klein). She takes the dismal science and puts it into terms anyone can understand, using examples from her own life.

For example, her desperate pursuit of a man who didn’t want her illustrates the idea of “sunk costs.” She had put in too many years to give up, having invested too much emotionally to just walk away. The failure was so devastating that she left NYC, moved to DC, and found her future husband – an example of the positive aspects of failure.

Interestingly, she cites surveys where many people cite failures – getting fired or divorced -as the best thing that ever happened to them. These calamities prompted people to try new things and find love elsewhere. We are “failure machines,” willing to try different solutions until we find the one that works. As Winston Churchill said, “Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.”

We need more failures. Like Steve Jobs. Prior to the Macintosh, he failed with the Lisa, an overpriced personal computer that no one wanted. And before the success of the iPhone, there was the ignominy of the Newton. Jobs kept iterating, coming up with new ideas and new products, undaunted. Taking lessons from each failure enabled Jobs to find his way to success

McArdle discusses young journalists who sabotage their own careers by just giving up. So afraid of turning in a lousy manuscript, they write nothing. But a terrible first-draft can be fixed; one that doesn’t exist cannot. McCardle tells writers that they have permission to suck, realizing that this simple bit of advice is key to unlocking creative potential.

America needs to regain its taste for failure, something we have lost in the malaise of the Obama Economy. Risk-taking needs to be encouraged once again. Failures are learning experiences. Failures indicate confidence in the future – we’re willing to try new things, to make investments, to take chances.

“We have a strategic plan. It’s called doing things.” I love this quote by Herb Kelleher, founder of Southwest Airlines. It perfectly expresses the optimism and can-do nature of the American spirit. We’re going to keep trying things until we find what works. Even if that means failure. Especially if it does.

The Up Side of Down is an overview of failure. We must embrace failure, treasure it, and, most importantly, learn from the experience. The secret to success is rooted in the hard lessons of failure.