Monday, February 18, 2013

Adventures in Megalomania

I knew nearly nothing about philosophy until I was in my early twenties. Of course I knew of philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, but I hadn’t read their works and was almost completely ignorant of anyone who came after them.
When I was nineteen I began writing every day. This was just before I started doing stand-up. Some of the longform thoughts I put down were eventually converted into comedy bits. Anyway, as I was writing, I began to believe I was breaking new ground. It didn't stop there. Little by little, I started to think my writings were dangerous. The public probably couldn't handle them. If these thoughts were discussed in public, parts of society might unravel. And I wasn't sure society would be better off for this unraveling.

I actually spent time wondering whether or not it would be responsible to attempt to have these dangerous thoughts published. Apparently I thought I was Copernicus or something. I even started to think it might be safer to publish posthumously. This is not an exaggeration, nor was I "in denial" (I had not a shred of doubt about the importance of my thoughts, therefore I had nothing to deny).

At age 20 I took a job at a bookstore, and by stocking shelves became aware of someone named Schopenhauer. Once I read a few of his writings, I discovered that not only had Mr. Schopenhauer already chronicled some of the IMPORTANT MIKE PAYNE THOUGHTS I thought were going to set the world on fire; he had done it far more skillfully than I ever could have. It would be difficult to communicate the shock and dislocation that followed. I would even say I grieved a bit. 

Because of this, for the next few years I was ambivalent about whether it was even worth it to keep writing or doing comedy. (Looking back, I'd say it wasn't, but anyway I kept going).
Eventually in my late twenties I got over the fact that Schopenhauer (and many other writers I read after him) had beaten me to the punch on some of my penetrating macro insights. But then something new occurred to me: Maybe I could sketch out the political applications/implications of some of these thoughts, with examples from history*. Then I came upon Bill Bonner's Empire of Debt, and was once again hit with a shock; the man had already laid out most of what I thought I was going to say, and had done it so well there was no point in repeating it. This time around it wasn't as gutting. I'd been put in my place enough times by then.
I bring this up because not long ago I almost ran into the same thing. In recent years I've been thinking that uncertainty and doubt serve us much better that confidence and conviction. While chewing on this, I thought: But what happens when you doubt a doubt?  Once again I started to wonder if I was onto something. Then I came upon a gentleman named E.M. Cioran, who arrived at it long before I did. This time I just laughed.

As Goethe once wrote: "Everything has been thought of before, but the problem is to think of it again."

Our thoughts and experiences feel particular to us, but they are hand-me-downs. Even being shocked by Schopenhauer into feelings of inferiority is hackneyed; Jorge Luis Borges had a similar experience.

*The fact that I was still thinking "Oh, I'll just write a book about this" shows I still had traces of delusion. I'm not alone in this: how many times have you heard a recently unemployed person--or just some random blowhard at a party--casually talk about how now they've finally decided to put out a getting your work read, published, and publicized is as simple as starting a new diet. This shows you how widespread delusions of grandeur are.

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