Writer Emily Gould once tweeted that she’d “subconsciously been waiting for years for the moment they take away all the scaffolding and NYC is Complete.” I was in high school when I first discovered that if I drank more than three beers in one night my consciousness would come untethered from my body. For weeks afterward, I’d feel like I was floating outside myself, watching my life happen to me from an eerie, arm’slength distance. Any good doctor, when prescribing antidepressants, will also recommend that you buttress your life with routine: exercise, hard work, concrete goals for the future. This makes sense. If you tend to drift, you tend to need some tying down.
Structure helps. But on a good day, I can tell you convincingly that life is not just a chain of levels to be played and beaten; that closure is a fiction, if a necessary one; that most “self-care” is just a bunch of tiny spells you sing to shoulder back the darkness of a world that wants to swallow you. Still, as I run, drink water, plan my days and track my sleep, I can’t shake the secret certainty that there’s some cheat code for completeness I can crack if I keep trying. I don’t think I’m alone in this—if I were, “self-improvement” wouldn’t be a thing. The finished city shimmers just outside the reach of reason, pulls your desire toward it like a magnet. The promise of no more scaffolding is the promise of advertising and bad-faith politics and cults of all kinds: that the right gestures, performed precisely in the proper order, might somehow free you from the endless work of gesturing itself—of wondering how best to do it, and of almost always knowing you are wrong.
The bad news is, your flaws don’t come from nowhere. The world is deeply fucked from every angle; its damage is incomprehensibly vast and ancient, hooked into the future and printed upon you in endless, innumerable ways. You can’t reverse it. But art can unmake you differently. A perfect pop song, the kind that knees you in the chest while you’re standing in a checkout line, is the sound of something familiar resolving into something transcendent. A good poem finds the cracks in the foundations of your thinking and outlines them with glitter, or sets the whole building on fire. People make things with money they get from the government, or from jobs, or from stealing, and one time out of every 500 that you go to see those things they’ve made, some small corner of your world will come unlaced because of it. That’s not a lot, but it’s proof that the work of living can be more than just gesture: that there is more to do with structure than to surrender or be crushed by it. You can always be made a little more unsure; you can always be taken a little more apart. ■
Pierre Ayot La croix du mont Royal 1976/2016 Metal 8.6 x 1.2 x 13.1 m COURTESY GALERIE B-312
PHOTO GABOR SZILASI