Category Archives: Letters

#54 On surviving for a living

Dear Jamie,

In 2009 I went on a trip to Europe. The year before I had read the life-turn-upside-downing 4 Hour Workweek and made a bunch of friends from all around the world. The ironclad arguments in the book had a year to stew in my mind. My friends, having graduated and left Australia, were one year into the rest of their lives. While the book was mulling and my friends were milling I was questioning whether academia was for me.

It was quite a trip to determine the direction of one’s life; the lifescape I was presented with over those two weeks was as diverse as one could bear. One started a career they still hold, one was starting PhD, one was dealing with a terminally ill family member, one had to force me to tightrope-walk a highway curb under construction in the middle of a still-running busy highway just to avoid gypsy taxis in Romania, one had lots of money but complained of having no meaning, more than one had relationships turn upside down. The whole time I had The Cat Empire’s The Car Song stuck in my head. The whole time.

In the precious moments that song wasn’t blaring, my mind was capable of expertly argued justifications why the structured path of academia was “optimal”, but my gut was bubbling at me it wasn’t real enough – or something, the gut is never as coherent as the mind. The ivory tower was super attractive, but it kinda felt, I don’t know, thin? But after weeks of painful deliberation, no matter how I cut it, I couldn’t honestly say I’d have been a net benefit for the world after costing $4M of taxpayer money to produce papers.* Well that’s not quite true. My mind was capable of justifying but it was incapable of quelling the ol’ bile dump.

In the intervening years I’ve come to believe that in academia I wouldn’t be surviving enough. Or, more accurately, I wouldn’t be surviving the right kind of environment. You survive academia the way you survive bureaucracy, by surviving the opinions of peers. Survival is an issue in artificial environments too, it just means less.

– – –

There are degrees of survival pressure. To take pure examples from stories, an example of little to no survival pressure would be the tower-kept sheltered prince. An example of the opposite would be Rick Grimes in a zombie apocalypse. Each extreme disgusts us in a different way. One is necessarily brutish, dirty, untrustworthy and cutthroat while the other invariably descends to be weak, saccharine, hoity and naïve.

What’s the goal? Do we want raise everyone to a white prince? We certainly don’t want everyone to be a Rick Grimes.

I believe that as humans we are subconsciously aware of the sweet spot between these extremes, and that that’s because a balance of these is the optimal strategy. I’m aware how loose and psychological this sounds, but if we have any pre-programming in our brains, surely programming around survival itself would be up there. The prince is free to be creative but is fragile, swept away (or adopting your colourful language “slaughtered”) when foundations shift. Rick Grimes can look after himself, but can’t progress at all, what with all the M16s of Damocles about the place.

The gut is a survival compass. It drives Rick Grimes’ to still get up in the morning even though it’s probably hopeless, and it makes restless those princes who have everything. Following that compass stirs life into being. This is all hardly new. As you said the elite have been milling about since the beginning of time, while the workers were doing actual milling. The inevitable “slaughter” that wipes out the aristocracy is merely a failing dike that once obscured the years of ignored reality at bay.

It’s true western societies are more tower-like than any other.** The idea that we need a new ethic to guide us is, I think, naïve. It’s the exact kind of thing someone in a tower would think.

We are asking the same questions as our ancestors just from loftier towers whose foundations stand in the same ancient soil. The question was originally of man vs nature, then chaos vs order, then god vs devil, then reason vs passion then head vs heart, to our 21st century picture of a biased but rational brain vs mood-determining gut biota.

Rather than implement an artificial moral or economy to finally crush the spirit of our gut so that people can live “meaningfully” in constructed towers, we should use our knowledge to eliminate true suffering and orient our civilisation to give our people the gift and respect of real problems to solve – at least we’ll solve real problems doing it.


* 30 years at average cost of $130k/yr. A solid underestimate for an average academic. Taxpayers have already paid me $130k to do my PhD.

** Though ironically I think democracies are the most real system. Our political system works so well because it succeeds more than other other in communicating reality up the chain. That’s my reasoning for why modern democracies are more real than the god-kings and their administrators. The irony is that intellectuals are stumped as to how democracies manage to survive despite all the mess, while in reality they survive because the mess is aired.

#53 On equipment for living

Dear Mat,

One of my favourite formulations of literature — as opposed to myth — is Kenneth Burke’s claim that it is equipment for living. Literature provides us with new perspectives and unusual ideas, it gives us discussions of moral quandaries, it brings new people into our lives, it defamiliarises the familiar and pushes the limits of language and thinking.

I agree with your four categories for why a work might have currency, but I want to focus on the second: survival value. Are literary works also equipment for survival? Perhaps not. For that, maybe consult a dating guide, a medical textbook, or a flyer from the sperm bank. I suggest that living isn’t surviving. Not anymore anyway. Continue reading #53 On equipment for living

#52 On reasons for selection

Dear Jamie

Damn it man all I wanted was an exact explanation of the hierarchy of value boiled down into a sentence or two. What good are you?

I’d like to sully your thinking by forcing it into categories. Here’s what I have. It seems like there are four reasons to explain why a work has currency now. Firstly, what’s said and/or what’s interpreted has Continue reading #52 On reasons for selection

#50 On depth

Dear Jamie,

That was my favourite letter in some time. Thank you. I also love irony, at least when I’m aware of it.

The progression of agency in the history of literature was something I never really appreciated until you said it. It makes sense given your snapshots; a deus ex machina-heavy ancient Greek play through conscious fate-addled Shakespearean contemplator up to the unrelenting conscious agency of the agent James Bond. OK the last one’s a joke, and it’s because an invincible agency is as boring as a completely yielding one, which suggests to me this Continue reading #50 On depth

#49 On irony

Dear Mat,

Thinking The Bible perfectly good or perfectly bad is wrong. Reading my criticism of it as saying it is perfectly wrong is, ironically, the same kind of wrong. Here’s my imperfect heuristic: what was written by a bunch of uneducated dudes who were trying to lay claim to the ultimate truth, between 1900 and 2900 years ago, is probably quite wrong. And where it happens to be right, we will have better equivalents now anyway. So we can safely junk it.

Were I to apply this only to holy texts, you could accuse me of being ideologically anti-religious. But of course I apply this to all texts pre-1500. Doesn’t matter if it’s Socrates, Seneca or Saint Paul, they don’t know shit from Shinola about a lot of things. Continue reading #49 On irony

#48 On Groups

I realised after I sent the letter that I might have been wrong to say you dismissed it because it was Jesus. What I meant to say is that you dismiss it because it comes from a religion. Ex Schola would have been the better phrase to use, but because it’s less pretentious it’s less fun to say in a letter.

It’s absolute madness that fundamentalists think The Bible is perfect. And the exact opposite to this, which is to think it’s perfectly and absolutely flawed, is also madness. If you had never heard Continue reading #48 On Groups

#47 On real democracy

Dear Mat,

Do I not give Jesus’ teachings a fair go because of his reputation? I have to say, my major engagement with religion has been to read the holy texts as though they were written by unexceptional humans (which indeed they were).

In The Bible we get the opposite: the mother of all halo effects where people listen to what Jesus says not because of the quality of his teachings but because he is posing as the son of someone important. Evaluated as anonymous statements on how to live, the New Testament fails terribly. Nowadays, unfairly transplanted from the cultural context in which it was written, it recommends behaviour that is totally unethical and totally nuts given what we now know about human nature and the world. Love thy neighbour as thyself. Impossible. Give no thought for the morrow. Terrible advice guaranteed to ruin. Continue reading #47 On real democracy