Here is a passage from the NY Times book review of Timothy Ferriss’s new book “The 4 Hour Body”:
He can use without irony…lines like: “I was enjoying French food and a bottle of Bordeaux with a 25-year-old female yoga instructor new to San Francisco, fresh from the Midwest.” This poor woman lets slip that she’s unable to have an orgasm. Mr. Ferriss, as any humanitarian would, makes it a point to fix this problem for her. “I was able to facilitate orgasms,” he writes, “in every woman who acted as a test subject.”
I started writing a diatribe about Ferris’s passage, but I stopped myself. After all, I haven’t read the book. Despite what I might think about this passage, I wish him and his readers the hardest bodies. May his words heal the masses.
But I think the Times reviewer nails it. It wasn’t so much what Ferriss wrote, but the way he wrote it, i.e. “without irony.” As Oscar Wilde put it, “A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal.”
The world is bloated with sincerity. Look through most newspapers and all you see is sincerity and its evil cousin, seriousness. We read headlines about Wikileaks and oil-spills and crazed gunmen and we absolutely know the world is screwed.
But what if the answer to all the world’s woes isn’t more sincerity, more seriousness, more knowledge? Knowledge dooms. Knowledge is a record of what has been, and what likely will be. We know we are screwed because we have been. Knowledge seldom permits what could be, because what could be cannot be known. It hasn’t happened yet.
What if instead of more sincerity, seriousness and knowledge, the world needed more irony? The Greek root of irony is “eirōneia,” meaning simulated or feigned ignorance. What if even the small act of pretending to not know has the power to loosen our grip on the doomed nature of reality? What if irony was the key to transformation?
Let me explain what I mean in a very sincere fashion.
Knowledge concretizes reality. When something is known, it becomes, for all intents and purposes, immutable. Knowledge—more specifically accumulated knowledge—precludes possibility, which is the potential for the unknown. For example, if we know the best way to walk home from the bar, we preclude the possibility of better, alternate routes.
All problems flow from the known. Problems are when reality—be it a situation, person, institution, whatever—conflicts with what we know should be different. For example, my friend is a mooch and it’s a problem because I know he shouldn’t be one. While it might be a fact that my friend mooches, the problem is the rift between that fact and what I know he should be. When there is no contradiction between reality and knowledge, there is no problem.
Compounding matters is that when we have problems, we become serious. Seriousness is the byproduct of knowledge that something is immutable. For example, let’s say I have a problem because I am broke and I know that more money will make me feel more secure (a not-too-theoretical problem). Let’s dissect. First there is the statement, “I am broke.” By saying “I am,” I declare that who I am is broke. I don’t think “I have X-dollars in the bank and I have Y-expenses to cover.” No, I know that “I’m broke”; in that moment, this knowledge seems immutable. If it didn’t seem immutable, there would be no problem. I also know that more money will fix me. The more I know these things, the more real the rift between my broke ass and solvency appears, the more serious my problem becomes.
What irony does is loosen our grip on the known. It’s not that we necessarily divest ourselves of all our knowledge, but we entertain a new view, even if it’s only an act. Irony doesn’t take knowledge so seriously.
I realize this might sound like bourgeois theorizing. You might think that there are many real problems like waterborne disease, extreme poverty, institutionalized gang rape, etc. We can’t simply wave the magic wand of irony and say these problems don’t exist.
I wouldn’t dare diminish the gravity of these situations. Nor will I say problems don’t exist. Problems are very real for those experiencing them. But as hard as it is to write this, there is no such thing as an objective problem. All problems stem from our interpretations of facts. It’s a fact that 1.8 million people die annually from waterborne diseases, but it’s an interpretation that this is a problem. It might be a unanimous interpretation, but it’s an interpretation nonetheless.
I think one of the main reasons it’s hard to write (or perhaps read) the above statement is not merely that it runs so counter to conventional wisdom (my own included). It’s that if something so self-evidently horrific is not an objective problem, it renders all of my problems—my stupid schemes and ambitions, worries and hopes—beyond trivial.
There’s a related issue too: when we know things to be problems, when they become immutable, we are less likely to deal with them. Most of us read the statement about 1.8 dead people and sigh. What can we do in the face of such an overwhelming problem? We think about our own problems and sigh. Why bother? We know things won’t change, because they never have.
In the words of 38 Special, hold on loosely. Everything is mutable. Everything that is born, dies. Everything that appears, disappears, including our problems. And when problems are mutable, we cease to be immobilized by them. We can face reality because it’s not that big of a deal. Everything changes anyways.
In a general way, what irony does is diffuse seriousness. As explained, this works for making problems workable, but it is also an antidote for self-seriousness, i.e. egoism. What’s so ridiculous about Ferriss is the seriousness of his self-regard as the archetypal young, hardbodied, millionaire, regularly bedding downward-dog-facing innocents. He conveys a tacit knowledge that this lifestyle is to be envied; that we should be so lucky. C’mon dude. Do we really know this? Most playboys I know are driven by compulsive and addictive tendencies. If I had to guess, Ferriss is masking deep insecurities and seeking reader approval via this account.
Perhaps Ferriss’s seriousness is a byproduct of his desire to help (I’ve read a few of his blog posts and he doesn’t seem like a bad guy). Oftentimes, when we’re out to help others, we feel the need to treat our knowledge as legitimate and true. We might also feel compelled to treat the problems of those we help as legitimate and true. What if a Christian minister said, “Accept Jesus as your lord and savior and go to heaven. But if that doesn’t work, try atheism.” No, we want certainty. Ferriss’s book is a bestseller because readers want to know that it’ll give them a hard body in 4 hours.
But what if all of our problems stem from the seriousness with which we treat them? What if knowledge of a problem’s existence was the problem? What if we could loosen our grip on that knowledge? It reminds me of a quote from “A Course in Miracles”:
The separated ones have invented many ‘cures’ for what they believe to be the ‘ills of the world.’ But the one thing they do not do is to question the reality of the problem. Yet its effects cannot be cured because the problem is not real.
We need to start questioning the nature of our problems, not accepting a bunch of lame solutions. The more we compare ourselves against what we know to be solutions, the more helpless we are likely to feel. What if we didn’t need to work less or have harder bodies? What if we didn’t have to cure all the world’s problems? What if we could let go of what we know even for a second? And in so doing, we found out reality is just a big, stupid joke?
[Note: if this post has loosened any sense of hopelessness, help some people who have no clean water by clicking here and contributing to Charity: Water, a nice organization that builds wells around the world.]