“I saw the peculiar way America creeps up on you if you don’t have anything,” he told me. “It’s never rude. It’s just, Yes, you do have to work 14 hours. And yes, you do have to ride the bus home. You’re now the father of two and you will work in that cubicle or you will be dishonored. Suddenly the universe was laden with moral import, and I could intensely feel the limits of my own power. We didn’t have the money, and I could see that in order for me to get this much money, I would have to work for this many more years. It was all laid out in front of me, and suddenly absurdism wasn’t an intellectual abstraction, it was actually realism. You could see the way that wealth was begetting wealth, wealth was begetting comfort — and that the cumulative effect of an absence of wealth was the erosion of grace.”
George Saunders, as quoted in the New York Times Magazine, Sunday, January 9, 2013.
George Saunders, my absolute favorite contemporary writer. Thank you Miriam. I saw this interview too.
What I take him to be saying is — well, we can all read what he is saying.
What I take him to be implying is: our lives, which we individually experience as profound and irreducible, are always lives lived among many, many other privately profound and irreducible lives. We get confused, when we are young, and think that realism — what the world is — provides some possibility for our private, profound, irreducible self to be accessed by others. When we grow older, as Saunders describes it so well, we learn that, actually, the actions we take while living (eating, reproducing, shivering, drinking, shitting, pissing, working, laughing) require, whether we realize it or not, that we embed ourselves in a complex arrangement of resources and needs and capabilities.
The reason therefore, that, in Saunder’s words, realism is absurd is because it is so much more basic and circumscribed than we thought: we find that, whatever our inner life, we need to do something to channel resources our way, to provide for ourselves and our dependents. The profound and irreducible part of each of us is, put simply, not that important — indeed, it has, literally, ZERO importance — to anyone else, even to our loved ones. What they get, when they work with you, when they rely on you, even when they love you, is some intrusion (sometimes welcome, sometimes not) of your actions into their private lives. This creates attachments. This can be glorious, infinite, moving, inspiring, something to fight and die for, all that. It can also be frustrating, dull, insulting, all that. But whatever other people’s reaction to your actions, you quickly come face to face with the absurdity of you and me being embedded in the world and never privy to each other’s inner lives.
The world is material. Our relationship to it, being material ourselves, is basic. What Saunders is pointing to, I would suggest, is the absurdity of thinking that it can be anything else. (Though we can’t help it, can we?)
With his last line he seem to imply that wealth is way to achieve “grace”: in that, you can achieve the illusion that your profound and irreducible life is not dependent on others, and therefore has a non-material, accessible nature. Of course it is an illusion. Knowing his stories, I think Saunders would agree that the “grace” afforded by wealth is often very damaging.