Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Anxiety, Khrushchev, and the 1950s

My anxiety is almost always related to money. Since my father had a stable job and my parents never worried about how they’d pay the mortgage, I don’t know how or why I came to worry so much about money. Perhaps my fear of poverty can be linked on some level to my mother’s cancer. As she grew sicker, did I conflate the existential fear of being left alone with the more mundane fear of facing economic destitution? However unrealistic that fear of poverty might have been, it was would have been easier to confront that then the approaching death of my mother.

At age 16 I got my first job as a waiter. I remember spreading out the tip money on the bed, tangible reminder that I was, at least on one level, safe and sound. As I grew older, I developed a neurotic attachment to money. I joked that I could sniff out the net worth of anybody, and I developed a theory of economic valuation and labeled it the “kidnapping theorem.” If you want to know how much somebody is truly worth, you have to calculate how much money friends and family would part with in order to get them back.

Chekhov divided his life into two parts: in the first part, he was beaten; in the second part, he wasn’t. Similarly, I divide my life into two parts: in the first part, I had a problem with economic production; in the second part, I had a problem with economic consumption. At first, my jobs as a waiter, production assistant in Hollywood, graduate assistant and adjunct professor, could barely sustain my membership in the middle class. This was a problem with economic production.

Eventually, I emerged from the long shadow of graduate school and gained my first full-time professional jobs. At last, I made a reasonable salary and had access to healthcare and other benefits. Even so, I felt like an East German at the fall of the Berlin Wall. I had access to the labor market, but I also had years of pent up consumer demand. All at once, I felt like I needed to placate what Zizek once called a “plague” of previously dormant consumerist fantasies. More than that, I needed to shoulder the burdens of a bourgeois citizen, so I took lower-paid colleagues out to lunch, bought wedding gifts for friends, and started a family. Whether in the production or consumption phase of my life, I remained anxious about money.

There are essentially two types of people in the world, savers and spenders, by passing through the two phases of my life, I now identify with both. When I earned almost no money, I hoarded what I did make, and felt an almost sensual satisfaction in seeing my modest bank account grow. Although a gentle breeze of misfortunate would have erased my savings from the face of the Earth, I took pride in the account, only fretting that it wouldn’t be enough to ward of ill fortune. Now, taught by others, I realize that I am also a consumer, someone who makes money but derives little satisfaction from anything other than spending. Is it better to be a saver than a spender? I’m not sure. I suspect that they are both the products of a different kind of anxiety. We either decide to try to ward off death by accumulating cash, or we make a play for eternity by buying our way into the existential insulation that things seem to provide.

I am thinking about the nature of anxiety because I’ve just read Peter Carlson’s book, K Blows Top: A Cold War Comic Interlude, Starring Nikita Khrushche, America’s Most Unlikely Tourist. K Blows His Top takes us into the heart of America in the 1950s, when, perhaps ironically, America suffered from terrific existential anxiety in the midst of unparalleled economic prosperity and technological progress. Of course, America really was on the edge of a potential nuclear abyss. So there was real rather than neurotic cause for concern. Be this as it may, America has almost always been on the verge of some sort of millennial or eschatological collapse, and we’ve always had enemies who seemed to threaten our existence on at least a political or ideological level.

The 1950s were a unique age, and might have been even without the invention and proliferation of nuclear weapons. We had triumphed spectacularly over the Germans and Japanese, but we still seemed to be powerless in the face of socialist revolution and decolonization. Ignoring our suburban paradises, the world seemed to be appalled by us. Khrushchev, in his three visits to the United States during this period, encapsulated the Janis face of 1950s America. The witty, mercurial dictator pointed to Sputnik, beat his show at the U.N., and promised to bury us. We responded truculently, but the truculence of ordinary Americans who hated Communism masked a deep vein of insecurity. We worried about Khrushchev’s countless quips about the size and range of his missile armada. We also worried that he might have a point when he said that “we”—and he meant white America--weren’t that popular in China, Cuba, the Congo, Harlem, or the Deep South.

It is a truism to say that Khrushchev was motivated by profound insecurity. He was a peasant from a still-developing country who had personally assented to heinous crimes against his own people. He had much to be embarrassed about. But Khrushchev, neurotic genius that he was, was no more neurotic than the country he was visiting. We were, after all, the home of puritan farmers as well as Hollywood decadence; the land of segregation as well as liberty.

1 comment:

  1. Those are some very insightful reflections on the relationship between financial anxiety and death. The distinction you draw also seems to have something to do with whether you privilege the emotional or the rational side of your personality, not that they can be strictly separated, but we do create these fantasies of ourselves that seem partly dependent on our relationship to credit. Either credit becomes a signifier of our polymorphic universality, our effort to be all things to all people, and our emotional flexibility, or else it is an emblem of some kind of foundational solidity that we associate with reason. And I'm sure there are plenty of permutations in between.