The Newsletter Thingy
The Sybarite Newsletter: Atmospheric Rivers and Aspirational Love
In which we explore the great outdoors, and the hunt for how a person should be.
Greetings from Los Angeles, where we await our next atmospheric river. I love those two words together, atmospheric + river, so much. The weather people (whoever they are) are revealing themselves to be secret poets.
Speaking of secret poetry, I’m almost finished reading a piece in The New Yorker that I thought I was going to use as an example of the type of writing I’m looking to include in Sybarite. But then I kept reading. Now, not so much.
In “Agnes Callard’s Marriage of the Minds,” writer Rachel Aviv writes about (reports on? I don’t know anymore) the marriage(s) of public philosopher Agnes Callard. One day Agnes, a professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago, made cookies for her graduate students. One of those students, Arnold, ate a cookie and made a weird face at Agnes. When Agnes asked him what was up with the weird look, Arnold replied that he was in love with Agnes, who said she was in love with him too. Then they smoked some cigarettes and then Agnes left her husband Ben six weeks later.
Agnes, a fangirl of Socrates and Aristotle, was philosophical about the situation. Her thinking went something like this: Love should be aspirational, Arnold makes me feel aspirational, so if I stay married to Ben, I’ll be a bad person, because I won’t be authentically living the true meaning of love.
I’ll admit, Agnes had me here. I love the idea of exploring human behavior — passion, sex, love — through the lens of philosophy, because it brings the high (ideals) and the low (humanness) together. And I’ve always thought Sybarite could be that; yes, we are writing about Tom Ford sunglasses, but we are also writing about female power. Yes, we are writing about the city of San Francisco, but we are also writing about longing and memory.
But then I kept reading. Agnes likes to say that she rejects — or at least questions — the accepted conventions of marriage, and often wonders why people simply repeat conventional behavioral norms without questioning whether they are helpful or truthful or reflective of our authentic desires. And that’s cool. But then she goes and does the most conventional thing possible once she leaves one man for another: she marries Arnold, and at it was at this point I started to think, okay this lady is full of shit.
Ben and Agnes already had two sons. Then Arnold and Agnes have a son, and they eventually move in with Ben, and Ben and Agnes’ children. And this is also very cool. They create a loving family with three children and three parents and I’ll give credit where it’s due: This is beautiful and impressive and unconventional. But then Agnes and Arnold start to experience the predictable decline of any long term relationship. Agnes doesn’t think Arnold is ambitious enough, and she’s annoyed that he won’t stop grading papers while she’s making homemade pita bread and coughing at the same time.
Instead of recognizing that this is just a function of what happens to a marriage when you spend too much time together, or that life is often a series of very boring mundane moments, or that we can’t all feel awesome all the time, Arnold and Agnes continue to drag Aristotle and other philosophers into their relationship, to see if they’ve got anything to say about hating the way your partner slurps their coffee.
It was at this point I stopped reading, because I was getting out of the bubble bath and had to get ready to meet a friend at a wine bar. I planned to read the rest later, but the more I thought about it, the more it annoyed me, because the whole thing seemed like an overwrought exercise in trying to justify a mediocre life with higher ideals. In other words, it was dishonest bullshit.
Again, I’m a fan of philosophy. Someday I’ll tell the story of the painful crush my friends and I had on the professor who taught us the philosophy of the aesthetic experience. And I’m a fan of what philosophers have to say about the human experience: about love, about the sublime, about violence.
But what I am not a fan of is trying to justify your very humanness with idealism. What happened here was simple: Agnes had the hots for Arnold, these hots hijacked her brain, she probably had some mind-blowing orgasms with Arnold because sex is always hotter when it’s forbidden. Then she left her husband for another husband, who turned out to be just another factory-issued husband, no more special than her first husband, just a newer model. There is nothing about this that is more elevated than simple humanity, and therefore I call bullshit.
Perhaps it is too painful for Agnes to accept head on that she made an extremely impulsive, human decision that could have caused harm to her children or first husband and so in order to justify it, she shoehorned her behavior in some sort of aspirational moral code. Or maybe she’s just totally nuts. But either way, this is not the type of thing I want for Sybarite after all. I only want to publish honest things.
But to be fair to Agnes, I think I understand the notion of aspirational love, or at least aspirational passion. Over the years when I’ve had crushes on people I knew I would bump into often — whether they went to the same grocery store or were a work colleague — I found myself making sure my outfits were cute everyday and spent more time on skin care. Even if these crushes never returned the affection, their very existence made me want to be better, albeit in superficial ways.
This brings me to another question that I’d love to sit down and discuss with Agnes, because even though I’m calling bullshit, she still seems super interesting. The question is this: Is superficial really superficial? Or is it a doorway to some deeper self reflection, a deeper relationship with oneself?
This afternoon I went to see a plastic surgeon about my jowls/fat neck, and he suggested a procedure that costs $23,000. This is, of course, completely insane. I’m already in massive credit card debt. And yet I’m thinking about it, because a part of me believes that doing something like this would elevate me in other important ways; it would be a testament to valuing myself. I’d like to ask Agnes what Aristotle and Socrates have to say about lower face lifts.
Of course, some of you might argue that if I really valued myself I wouldn’t feel the need to do it, but I’m not really talking to you. I’m talking to the people who understand that lipgloss and push up bras and the way we look is meaningful, although we can certainly debate how much and why and whether it should be that way.
But don’t worry, I’m not going to do it. Unlike Agnes, I’m firmly grounded in the mundane reality of life and know that I can’t afford it. But if I did have the money, I’d probably do it because like Agnes when she first met Arnold, I’m feeling pretty aspirational now: I currently have it real bad for the Camaro Guy, and that feeling makes me want to be better; it makes me want to go to hot yoga and get enough sleep and drink enough water. It makes me not want to have jowls.
Which brings me, again, to writing for Sybarite. (This is not as awkward a transition as you might think; stay with me). When I ask people to write about luxury or fashion or food or fancy things, I’m asking you to handcuff yourself to something real, something you can touch or taste or hear or see. Yes, figuring out the best lingerie to wear around Camaro Guy is silly and unserious, but the fact that one person can affect another person in this way is deeply serious. (Spoiler alert: this is, in the end, what Agnes was trying to say).
Anchor yourself to the real (lingerie) and you may very well access a portal to Other Big Thoughts (love, desire, what one human can bring out in another). But because you’ve anchored yourself to something real and elemental, those Big Thoughts won’t be total hogwash. And as some of you may know, Sybarite was born as a battle against hogwash.
That’s why I love the one and only story Sybarite has published since the last newsletter. Geo Snelling writes about hunting and killing his first and last deer, but of course it’s about more than that — it’s about love, and about how to be. Agnes should probably read it.
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