Jonathan Franzen is a modern author whose best known work, “Freedom”, contemplates the bitter common realities implied by the American dream. He has a lovely piece in the NYT contemplating how the act of “liking” in our Facebooky culture has replaced actual love. Some beautiful excerpts:
To speak more generally, the ultimate goal of technology, the telos of techne, is to replace a natural world that’s indifferent to our wishes — a world of hurricanes and hardships and breakable hearts, a world of resistance — with a world so responsive to our wishes as to be, effectively, a mere extension of the self.
Let me suggest, finally, that the world of techno-consumerism is therefore troubled by real love, and that it has no choice but to trouble love in turn.
If you dedicate your existence to being likable, however, and if you adopt whatever cool persona is necessary to make it happen, it suggests that you’ve despaired of being loved for who you really are. And if you succeed in manipulating other people into liking you, it will be hard not to feel, at some level, contempt for those people, because they’ve fallen for your shtick. You may find yourself becoming depressed, or alcoholic, or, if you’re Donald Trump, running for president (and then quitting).
The simple fact of the matter is that trying to be perfectly likable is incompatible with loving relationships. Sooner or later, for example, you’re going to find yourself in a hideous, screaming fight, and you’ll hear coming out of your mouth things that you yourself don’t like at all, things that shatter your self-image as a fair, kind, cool, attractive, in-control, funny, likable person. Something realer than likability has come out in you, and suddenly you’re having an actual life.
There is no such thing as a person whose real self you like every particle of. This is why a world of liking is ultimately a lie. But there is such a thing as a person whose real self you love every particle of. And this is why love is such an existential threat to the techno-consumerist order: it exposes the lie.
These are some of the most satisfying reflections I’ve ever read in the New York Times. Franzen’s thoughts on love in the age of Facebook are essential, indispensable, and truly profound. Which makes it all the more confusing when it turns out that Franzen’s true love is… birds?
It’s a long story, but basically I fell in love with birds. I did this not without significant resistance, because it’s very uncool to be a birdwatcher, because anything that betrays real passion is by definition uncool. But little by little, in spite of myself, I developed this passion, and although one-half of a passion is obsession, the other half is love.
Wait, Franzen has just written a beautiful piece about how love requires exposing the real dirt on one’s soul to someone who may reject you, and whose acceptance of you on truthful terms is a uniquely meaningful life experience. He writes about the hollowness of technology, about how it is the narcissist’s accomplice, purely gratifying and incapable of judgment. But he loves birds? How is this “love” of birds in anyway distinct from the infatuation with technology he was intent on decrying?
This has to be postmodern irony. Either that, or one of the most self-reflective authors of the modern age is also the least self-aware.