The Pleasure Of... Ingratitude

On joy vs. gratitude, the history of the 90s, and cheekbones.

Thanksgiving week counterprogramming? Not exactly. I’ve been thinking a lot (idly, I admit) about gratitude, and the difference between what I’m trying to do, and understand, here, with regard to joy and pleasure specifically, and how it’s different from gratitude. Innumerable magazine articles and self-help books recommend keeping a journal to chronicle the things we’re grateful for, but I’m skeptical about what this actually does for our happiness. (Hashtag #blessed.) To whom are we grateful? And what does that gratitude require of us? Like so much in contemporary self-help and self-care culture, the obligation to record and voice gratitude seems to arise from a blended religious and consumerist impulse: our guilt over having so much, in comparison with our neighbors or the rest of the world, can be assuaged by performing gratitude, voicing our submission to a vague higher power in an effort to inoculate ourselves against reversals of fortune. Ingratitude, by that logic, is a sin, a risk, an immodest display. But ingratitude is also a kind of self-determination, an effort to reclaim and assert our own power. Think of King Lear, and Cordelia’s refusal to perform gratitude (her recognition that the performance undermines the truth of the emotion) as the beginning of her self-determination. Which doesn’t exactly end well, of course, but that’s tragedy for you.

Of course I’m not advocating not saying thank you, as part of the basic obligation of being a human being in a society. I’m not suggesting there’s any upside to not thanking the person who makes your coffee, or gives you a gift. I say thank you all the time—probably nearly as much as I say sorry (hashtag #British.) But performative gratitude—the posture of gratitude, a stooped thing—is something that I notice a great deal with regard to particular forms of work, and I’m increasingly suspicious that it stands in opposition to justice and political action and other things we desperately need. Gratitude is deeply threaded through the culture of academia, creative work, cultural institutions, and even journalism, in a way that works to keep corporate employees silent and acquiescent—especially in the US, where corporations have barely any checks on their power over their employees. This kind of obligatory gratitude strikes me as superstitious, verbally crossing oneself before any expression of joy or pride, and certainly before any complaint. It’s an expression of powerlessness, a shrug that says, I have no right to anything more. 

Anyway, perhaps because I actually watched some impeachment hearings and the Democratic debate on Wednesday, I am feeling especially frustrated by anything that feels like fatalism, that shrug of powerlessness. So in place of passive gratitude, I want to celebrate active pleasure, that’s sought out and fought for. I want us to lay claim to the work we do well, and the worth we bring into the world. That said, I remain extremely grateful to the hardworking baristas of New York, and also to highly educated career diplomats with actual moral spines, especially when they’re Geordies.

Less Abstract Pleasures

I don’t time my reading well for this, because I keep finding myself writing about books I haven’t had the weekend to finish. But, there’s time: Later by Paul Lisicky doesn’t come out until March, but I got an advance copy (for which I am grateful, to the lovely publicist who sent it to me, but which I also earned!) It’s a memoir about a year the author spent in Provincetown in the early 90s, and about what life was like for an HIV-negative gay man in this strange isolated seaside town at the height of the AIDS crisis. After reading Rebecca Makkai’s wonderful The Great Believers this summer, and then earlier today reading about the new Broadway play, The Inheritance, that apparently did very well in London but is getting pretty brutal reviews here, I’m curious what’s going on with a contemporary literary reckoning with AIDS. Works dealing with what is known and remembered and passed on (and perhaps also dealing with the toxic gratitude of survivor guilt.) Perhaps it’s the aging of the survivors, or the sense that these stories are for and about all of us, not a persecuted minority, or that the 80s and 90s are far enough away now for more clear-eyed reckonings. Anyway, Lisicky’s book is beautiful so far, intense and surprising, and is giving me a lot to think through. 

Less cerebrally, this week I’ve been deriving great joy from The Good Place, which feels like it’s hit its groove after a slightly disjointed start, and also from the excuse it has given various magazines to do photo shoots with Manny Jacinto and his downright impeachable cheekbones. It didn’t hurt that he just got arrested with Jane Fonda and friends protesting government inaction on climate change. Here, enjoy.  

And finally, me (kinda)

I actually have an exciting new project to share *next* week, but for now, I’m delighted by the news that Hallie Rubenhold’s excellent The Five, about the women who were murdered by Jack the Ripper, won the UK’s prestigious Baillie-Gifford nonfiction prize this week. It’s as good an excuse as any to re-share my review from May for the Washington Post, which was also a diatribe against the true-crime genre and its effacing of the humanity of (usually female) victims. The book is a fascinating dive into the realities of life for the poor in Victorian London, the cold comfort of addiction, and despite their brutal endings (which Rubenhold doesn’t describe in any detail), the women’s stories are full of life.