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Two Years on Substack
A Second Annual State-of-the-'Stack Address
For, though I am not splenative and rash,
Yet have I in me something dangerous.
Two significant milestones are occurring in my life this month. One is that I will be turning fifty in a few days; the other is that I have finally finished reading the seven volumes of Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. This meganovel has not simply come up from time to time here at The Hinternet, as regular readers will have noticed, but has been intricately woven into our DNA. I really don’t know what I would have been thinking and writing for all these months, if Proust had not been accompanying me.
I initially promised you seven separate essays on his work, one for each volume of the Recherche. In fact he came up far more than seven times, not as the subject but as a flawless accompanist to nearly everything I’ve written over the past year. He has guided me thematically, and encouraged me to dwell, more than I might otherwise have been inclined to do, on the themes of memory and the passage of time. I have channeled these preoccupations through sensibilities he could not have shared —his Vinteuil is my vaporwave; his decadent aristocratic salons are my ghost-malls—, and in contrast with his my own experience of memory is at once an occasion for reflection on the new technologies of memory construction and consolidation — my life is now spent constantly hooked up to a machine that can reliably be expected to “drop new madeleines” at the rate of several per day.
So we inhabit different realities, Marcel the narrator and I, yet some things never change. He and I are both Time-bound, and both feel chronically handicapped by this condition even if we can’t really imagine any other one; both stumped by the strange causal and epistemic assymetries of the past and future respectively, whereby you can know the past but have no causal power of it, while you can exercise causal power over the future but you can’t know it. Our future-directedness is at the same time the “horizon” of our mortality, hurtling towards a death we cannot make out but that we still know more certainly than anything.
My first essay on Proust reproduced, without permission, that consummate work of New Yorker cartooning humour with an ageing couple sitting in bed reading, one of whom announces to the other that he’s just done the calculations, and both of them must start reading In Search of Lost Time now if they want to get it done by the time they die. It is remarkable to discover, in the final volume of Proust’s work, that this cartoon captures the narrator’s predicament as well: he has to leave le monde behind, and now, if he wishes to get this work delivered that’s been gestating in him his whole life. Céleste Albaret, the woman on whom the character of the servant Françoise is based —Françoise, the true moral anchor of the whole work— related in a news-reel interview in the 1950s that, scarce had Proust handwritten the final sentence of Le Temps retrouvé than he smiled and declared to her: “Enfin je peux mourir.” He must already have taken on the appearance of the “bearded Assyrian” in the iconic death-bed portrait of him taken by Man Ray. He was fifty-one, and while the official cause of death was a pulmonary abscess, this diagnosis is best seen as the ad-hoc medicalisation of a life-long condition of literary sickliness. When you’re Proust even the real thing remains a metaphor.
I have confessed in this space to some fairly elaborate obsessive compulsions that have structured my life over the years, many of them associated with eating, walking, counting, language, but all of them, ultimately, it seems to me now, having something to do with mortality — a processing, through ritual, of one’s own inevitable demise. It is no surprise to me also to have discovered a host of new compulsive tics surrounding the reading of Proust’s work itself: I could only finish, for example, in the upper right-hand corner, after reading an even number of pages, on a line in which there is a letter a nearer to the right-side margin than a letter d, and so on.
These rituals were charged up with a sharp sense of finiteness — in fact I found myself rationing out very small portions of the work each day, at times as little as ten pages. There were moments when it seemed to me that the rationing was motivated by a desire for slow savouring of an experience I did not wish to see end, but in periods of greater clarity it came to seem to me that the “horizon” of this work was the horizon of life itself, that just as the cartoon had calculated to finish it would not be “une petite mort”, as we often experience when we finish an engrossing work of literature and cast around in the following days for something compelling enough to fill the void it has left; to finish it would be death itself, literally and fully, la grande mort after which you don’t have any letter at all that you prefer to see finishing a line on a page of a book, after which you never refresh your browser windows or update your passwords again. The memory of that lame New Yorker cartoon, Proust’s own preoccupation with death, and my imminent fiftieth, I suppose, conspired for a perfect storm of irrationality: I was convinced the universe was to end with the ending of the novel.
I finished the final page on an airplane from Paris to San Francisco last Friday. The plane did not crash, and I immediately moved to fill up the rest of the time with some in-flight movies (uniformly terrible). I made notes on my phone, listing the major works of literature I’d like to read next: the memoirs of Saint-Simon, of Casanova, Peter Weiss’s Ästhetik des Widerstands. Perhaps even something in English. Life goes on, evidently. There are still lots of gaps, and Time did not leave the body after all, so we may as well try to fill them.
The day after I landed I visited Substack headquarters in downtown San Francisco, and met there the extremely gracious and supportive co-founder of the company, Hamish McKenzie. Two days earlier, still in Paris, I had met Sophia Efthimiatou, head of writer recruiting at Substack.
For fifteen years, from 2005 to 2020, I regularly posted long-form essays on my TypePad website, www.jehsmith.com, which remains active but basically unfrequented. Even after all that time, I still have no idea what TypePad is, as a company, whether it is a shell operation of the Chinese Triads, a subsidiary of PornHub, run entirely out of an apartment bloc in Norilsk, or what. When I had technical problems I submitted a “help ticket”, and TypePad AI would churn out something completely irrelevant as a “solution”, and then of course would invite me to take a survey about how helpful the service was. Most of my TypePad posts, even the most ornately conceived and executed hyperfictions, typically got a few hundred readers. Mixing a metaphor from David Hume with one from the space age, I would often complain that my efforts there “launched stillborn from the TypePad”.
And yet I kept coming up with them. Before there were blogs I used to write essays and print them out and circulate them to my mostly confused peer group. I had zero idea about how to submit written work for publication, how to get an agent, how to succeed; I only knew how to yield up words at a steady pace. When I did finally start publishing in gate-kept media, I was consistently stunned at how needlessly slow everything was, how indifferent I was to whatever I’d written by the time it made it into print.
I was always a writer, then, even in the absence of a system of uptake, promotion, and remuneration that was suited to my habits of expression. Two things have happened over the past two years that have caused me to inhabit this identity more comfortably and openly. One is that I have gone at least somewhat insane, in the wake of the pandemic and in the confrontation with mortality that was surely always destined to happen at some point, but was hurried in my case with the arrival of the novel coronavirus. This is a condition I have sometimes described as a “midlife crisis”. But that doesn’t get it quite right, not just because this is almost certainly not the midpoint of my life, but also because just about every period of my life prior to this one was also spent in crisis.
I think the familiar phenomenon we try to capture by this name happens so often in “midlife” for reasons having less to do with the internal program a person is running than with life circumstances. Adolescents are, as a rule, out of their little minds, and for them growing up, becoming professionalised and disciplined, means in part learning to manage that excess energy, that socially unacceptable ebullience, and to become a responsible adult. But then we just sit on that energy for twenty or thirty years, and for better or worse some of us find ourselves further down the line, bristling at the ease with which others identify us through the careers we made for ourselves —bristling at the very same thing that would have given us a dopamine-rush of legitimation a decade or two earlier—, and the things we tried to keep under wraps start to bubble up in us and to seep back out inexorably.
So to say that one is a writer, for better or worse, is to say that it is something one cannot but do, whether one is good at it or not, successful at it or not. To be a writer is to be like a bull elephant in musth; the words seep right out of your forehead, make you stomp and charge.
Going off the deep-end then is what has made it necessary to be a writer; what has made it possible —and possibility doesn’t always follow from necessity in life, whatever modal logicians have to say in the matter— is Substack.
For a long time writers simply had no reliable way of getting paid an amount roughly commensurate with their actual efforts. Of course one can still enjoy windfalls writing for legacy media, but usually only after considerable delay, after sending “gentle reminders” about the invoices one already submitted ages ago, and after consenting, often, to having any trace of one’s actual authorial voice thoroughly scraped from the final product.
It is with respect to the question of voice that Substack has proven most crucial. As Sophia sagely said to me in Paris, on Substack the most important thing is to push further in the direction your character and your creative impulses would have you go, even or especially if it seems crazy. Substack is thus not a publication with a house-style or anything like a like-minded “team” of contributors collectively shaping the homogenised voice of a single media outlet. It is rather a loose community of writers, brought together in the conviction that writing is best when it is not denatured for corporate ends (in at least one, and probably two, senses of “corporate”). The best Substack accounts are the ones that take someone with an already singular voice and provide them with resources for honing that voice and giving it broader reach. Etgar Keret comes to mind, in particular.
I am still learning not to resort to that horrible knee-jerk pleading that so many academics deploy when they get anxious about the judgments that might come from their peers concerning what they see as intellectual promiscuity or creative incontinence. But still, if we must plead, and if we’re being honest, it’s clear that at this point the line between legitimate work and extracurricular endeavours is vague, and appears to be moveable for reasons depending mostly on the branding-strategies of the academic in question. Just recently I was contacted with a request from a university press to evaluate a manuscript submission on some aspect of Proust’s work, some topic, I forget what, that was solidly and respectably within the wheelhouse of literary studies. But I have never written a word of scholarship on Proust; I’ve never touched any of the secondary literature on him, nor do I have any interest in doing so. I was contacted by this academic press to do standard academic work for them on the basis of my Proust-themed Substack pieces alone.
This kind of thing happens a lot. One reaction would be to say that the system breaks down in such cases, that they should not have contacted me because “that’s not my area”. “My area”, strictly speaking, is G. W. Leibniz’s views on the metaphysics and mereology of composite substances, and how these views shifted between roughly 1687 and 1695. That’s it. On a very narrow understanding, everything else I take up is extracurricular. But another way of interpreting such moments of breakdown is to suppose not that the university press in question was failing to turn to the person with the real competence, but that what counts as competence is very much up for grabs in this revolutionary historical moment, and that means in part that legitimation, intellectual or creative, today need not necessarily pass through a single institution or credentialing regime in order to appear as valid.
One of the key ideas that I keep seeing in the largely platitudinous quasi-self-help literature of the hypercapitalist tech industry is that a person should never be afraid to undertake low-status projects. I think it was Balaji Srinivasan who put it this way: the least discussed but most potent form of risk in the business world involves consenting to do something that might get you made fun of by your peers or former peers, at least at first, though perhaps forever. You can of course keep collecting your academic accolades, and no one will make fun of you for doing so. But if that’s all you do, then at the end of a career you might find yourself laden with the ribbons and hashmarks of a defunct regime. Do something ridiculous, go a bit crazy on Substack, and things might —just might— get unexpectedly interesting. “Fuck around and find out”, as the kids were saying for a while.
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As I approach the second anniversary of my first Substack post, it strikes me now that I have spent two solid years fucking around and finding out. Substack has enabled and encouraged me to fuck around, and provided a framework in which I am more or less guaranteed to find out something new, and something I never saw coming, almost every week after I’ve hit “publish”. I am particularly heartened by the slow-growing signs of appreciation for my “metafictional” or “hyperfictional” efforts. Last week’s ‘stack, a bit of time-travel metafiction that had been gestating in my mind for several months, was republished by WIRED Magazine this week, for example, and my editor there has taken the heroic editorial stance of declining to change a blessed thing in the piece.
It’s the metafiction, most of all, that I hope reveals the method in my madness. I am concerned, abidingly, with the way technology is shaping, and distorting, our memories and our sense of personal identity. The basic purview of The Hinternet, as I set it up at the beginning, is to explore these themes, somewhat as an ongoing paratext to my recent book, The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is. But it has become increasingly clear to me that these questions are best explored at several steps of remove from the sort of straightforward, declarative truth-claims that are the common currency of my first professional identity. The matter at hand is one that is best approached in a spirit of play, which leaves off from truth-claims without ceasing to love the truth. Working on our massive metafictional tome, In Search of the Third Bird, my collaborators and I often cited Walt Whitman’s idea that poetry should “kiss reality lovingly”. Fiction is “poetry” too, at least in the sense that, as Aristotle explained it, it ranges over the possible, unlike history which only ranges over the actual.
As a tradition philosophy has often found it useful to take a poetic turn, to stop arguing and to start imagining. A significant portion of the ichor flowing out of my writing-musth is of this sort: not an abandonment of philosophy, but at least an engagement with it that seeks to resolve one of its laziest oppositions, between argument and imagination, rigour and phantasm, description and metaphor, etc.
I have always insisted here that I am not doing “public philosophy”. I’m delighted that some friends, notably Agnes Callard, wish to take up the mantle of the public philosopher. That’s not for me. I am following no Reinheitsgebot, and have no interest in monitoring the “PhilCon” levels of my writing (a neologism inspired by “CanCon”, describing the law in Canada that dictates what percentage of musical programming at a radio station must be made by Canadian artists). My PhilCon will probably stay about where it is now, but for the next year at least the Phil will be processed, more than it has been up until now, through narrative strategies unlicensed within that discipline as currently conceived.
There will be more fucking around, in other words, which is to say more free play, mille-feuilles of layered ironies, tricks, deceptions, ruses, and McGuffins. That’s the mode I feel best in, and somehow it’s the one I feel Substack is best suited to help me draw out. There will also be the usual mixture of first-person memoirish writing, the regular reappearance of my usual hobby-horses of language, animals, cosmology, Palaeolithic art, etc.
This operation is now also large enough for me to venture into hosting guest-writers here at The Hinternet. I’m sure some readers will not like this move. I want the writers I invite to have their own voices, but I also want them to sound sufficiently like me that whatever I share from them remains in tonal and philosophical harmony with my usual output here. So, there are about six people in the world who can come through for us here, and I’ve found three of them. More on that anon.
It is perhaps an absurd proposition, in this epoch of exponentially exploding content, to continue to think about writing as trace-paper over the soul. Much writing today appears to be produced by people who do not yet know they are going to die — who have not yet met Ivan Ilyich or Ivan Illich, neither Tolstoy’s unhappy protagonist nor the author of Medical Nemesis (1974). Their writing looks more like tagging than anything — notification of the author’s present life. Another way of saying the same thing, practically, is to note that most writing today is SEO’d, and has no life at all if it is not boosted and pumped by its author on social media. “So I wrote a thing,” a young author will say when providing a link, differing little in spirit and ambition than those illocutionary classics, “Kilroy Was Here”, or “Snorri [made] this hammer”. Often it seems that it is not the writing itself, but the tweet promoting the writing, that is the goal, just as now it is common to go to Iceland, say, primarily in anticipation of how this is going to look on Instagram. One thing about turning fifty is that it gets a lot harder to think of work in that way, as the activity that establishes us in life, rather than as the effort, inevitably imperfect, to create a faithful image while there is still time of the layout of one’s condemned interior castle.
Now that my generation has more or less shot its load, has depleted its libido, after some solid decades of horseplay that seemed like they would never end, many of us have turned our sights to the next generation, investing in it as best we know how. Show me someone on the cusp of fifty who still has “looking out for Number One” as their principal mode of being, and I will show you someone for whom it is already too late to die an untimely death.
I keep my actual personal, affective, and moral entanglements mostly off the list of topics for this ‘stack, but like more or less everyone else, I do have them. Even those of us without biological offspring find ourselves reallocating a good portion of our concern from ourselves to the next generation. Over the past few years a strong impulse to reallocate in this way has coexisted in me with an ongoing, and so far not even weakening, interest in the singularity that is myself, and that has been the principal focus of my writing here. I find myself wondering, very often, whether such writing, at fifty, is not a mark of immaturity, whether I have lagged behind, still hung up on myself, and on establishing that “I was here” like Snorri and Kilroy when most others have reoriented entirely to focus on intergenerational continuity. But this only brings us back to the inexorable need to come out as a writer: to acknowledge its necessity is not part of any strategy, but is just something one must do in the name of honesty, whether it helps one’s cause or not, whether it is a mark of maturity or not.
In the Central Valley we always referred to San Francisco as “the City”, majuscule implied, as an ancient Tuscan might have called Rome “Urbs”. Notwithstanding this early formative geography, San Francisco was never the centre of anything more for me than pilgrimages to Haight Street to hit the record stores and the South Asian provisioners of goth accoutrements. So it is a strange kick, like a shift to another possible timeline, to find myself in that city “on business”, sort of, to the extent that I’ve ever been able to distinguish that modality of daily life from the others, and to see the inside of one of those tech-world headquarters that I had previously only imagined, with a casual and ergonomic snack bar like the one on Silicon Valley (which I saw, again, on an airplane). And to find myself in there talking about writing, and the possibility of its renaissance at the present historical moment.
Stranger still is what I did next, though it is something I have been doing for years now. I got on BART and the intercom announcements and posted warnings informed me of multiple ways I and my fellow riders might find ourselves arrested, subject to five-to-ten-year prison sentences, $100,000 fines. There were ads for class-action lawsuits against hospitals and banks, and other ads for hospitals and banks that seemed like nothing but bold invitations for more lawsuits. We went under the Bay, through West Oakland, beneath Jack London Square, up through Berkeley, El Cerrito, and all the way to Richmond. I got out and I wandered a bit. I went to an Arab quick-mart with a cardboard sign in the window marked up with black felt-pen: “BLACK LIVES MATTER”. I went back to the station. There were tent cities along an abandoned track, and a homeless couple was fighting there. A billboard loomed above us telling us how much more likely we are, as Californians, to suffer from pre-diabetes than to die in a shark attack.
When an Amtrak train arrives I get on it, and I’m told it’s the wrong one: I’m on the San Joaquins (sic) to Bakersfield, but I need to be on the Capital Corridor; that’s alright though, you can get off at Suisun and wait for it. The San Joaquins goes up the Sacramento Delta, which used to host the riverboats that linked Sacramento and San Francisco more intimately than Interstate 80 ever could, the primordial twin-cities of California that linked the Gold Country to the Pacific Ocean. In 1985 a humpback whale swam some distance up the Delta; they named him “Humphrey” and made t-shirts honouring him and parents took their children on drives down the river to see if they could spot him. Humphrey was likely ill and no doubt deeply terrified, but he succeeded in satisfying that deeply Sacramentan need to see the interdimensional boundary breached that separates our modest inland encampment from the Urbs, a city any European can tell you is eminently worth visiting, alongside New Orleans and New York, when in the United States.
I get out in Suisun. My grandfather used to deliver crates full of baby chicks to chicken farmers here, drove them down from Rio Linda, where even the telephone prefix (“991”) comes from the world of poultry farming: WYandotte-1 it used to be, before telephony was purged of all its poetry. I get on the Capital Corridor when it arrives; a young tough in a Cholo undershirt has “916”, the Sacramento area code, proudly tattooed on his arm in Old English letters. Oh yeah, I’m heading in the right direction. I’m heading home.
I can’t do this forever, I think. In the past couple of years the urgency of visiting whenever possible has increased, and I have been finding myself back at the San Francisco airport every few months now, where my mother still drops me off at the international terminal, just like she did the first time I left for Europe in July, 1990. We’ve started to joke that my “study-abroad program” has been extended thirty-two years beyond its initial end date. Eternal return, at least up until now, has not been a philosophical thought experiment, but simply the well-worn track of life.
But it can’t go on forever; something has to give. I had irrationally come to believe that finishing the seventh volume of Proust was going to break the spell of life, but then I finished it and found that it was indeed only a small death, that I was still in Time and as long as I was still in Time I was going to have to keep coming up with new ways to kill it. There are still certain obvious pillars of the English literary tradition that I have only grazed —in book reports, in adaptations (I know Heiner Müller’s Hamletmaschine far better than Hamlet, for example)—, but never given the sober, adult attention they deserve. For art is long.
“I’m gonna take your car to Barnes and Noble,” I tell my mother after a day or so in Sac. “I’m going to get myself an annotated edition of the collected works of Shakespeare as a fiftieth-birthday present.” Every purpose in this family sounds more compelling if it is attached to a birthday or wedding anniversary. She asks me why Shakespeare, and I say I’m hoping it will “improve my English”.
“Oh then you should read that one author your father liked so much, you know, the smart, funny one?”
“H. L. Mencken.”
“That’s right,” she says. We’ve had this exchange before.
“I’m not taking recommendations,” I say.
“You never did.”
Senectus frigida est et sicca, Aristotle wrote, or could have written, if he had written in Latin. “Old age is cold and dry.” This was meant in a literal sense: that the fluids that keep us all heated, thymic, and horny in youth have largely dried up, and left us alone with our cool wisdom.
If I were an eighteenth-century Enlightened sovereign, I would instruct my Academy of Sciences to sponsor an essay contest on the topic: “Does the body become more, or rather less, important for our existence as we age?” The question seems to draw out a strange paradox of life as an embodied and ageing being. The body announces itself ever more loudly, with ever more demands, but these also seem increasingly irrelevant to the question of who one is in this world.
Nor does the musth subside, but only grows increasingly metaphorical. Something hot and wet continues to seep out of us, as language, and this is so whether the words are discontented mumbling, or resounding prose. He is very fortunate who by fifty has figured out how this sublimation works.
Justin E. H. Smith's Hinternet is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
In The New Statesman I have a piece on the Webb Telescope images and their place in the larger history of cosmology.
As mentioned, I was thrilled when WIRED Magazine asked for permission to republish last week’s Substack piece on the new ChronoSwoop time-travel app. They came up with a great illustration, too.
I was pleased to see David Brooks mentioning my recent Liberties piece in his New York Times column. I’ll never forgive Brooks for his rotten gift to the French language of the word bobo, a word English-speakers had the sense immediately to forget after Bobos in Paradise (2000) slid from the top of the bestseller list. But still, he seems like a nice guy, and my mom absolutely adores him (“He’s a Republican, but he’s trying.”)
Finally, I am thrilled to announce that the long critical boycott of our book, In Search of the Third Bird, is finally drawing to a close, as the sharp critic Josefina Massot has written an extremely insightful review of it for the Los Angeles Review of Books. à