Being alive entails killing. It’s an unsettling thought that we try very hard not to dwell on, so we invent euphemisms to cover it up, make it more palatable. We speak of harvesting and fishing and sanitizing, but what all these terms really mean is the act of terminating another life to preserve our own. Nature, from a tiger pouncing on a gazelle to the weed in your garden choking the life out of your Swiss Chard, is one giant killing machine.
But there is one form of killing we rarely if ever find in Nature, suicide. True, that while protecting itself an organism may inadvertently or even deliberately lose its life, but you could hardly call that a suicide. A wanton termination of one’s own life runs contrary to Nature’s prime directive – “Try to survive, whatever it takes”. The case of bacteria and viruses who invade a body to infect it with a deadly disease is no exception. It may look like suicide, after all the virus kills the very body that it feeds on. But seen not from the perspective of the individual virus but from its species or strain, your demise (along with your viruses) is in fact a blessing. As you hack and sneeze and bleed to death millions of new viruses spread to other hosts. Bad for us, good for the viruses.
Many people look at cancer as just another disease, like typhoid or Malaria. Something causes a cell to start mutating. It spreads and multiplies, just like a virus, and in the process destroys healthy cells and eventually kills you. But there is a fundamental difference between cancer and infectious diseases. The cell in question is not an outside “invader” using your body as “prey” for its own advantage. The cancerous cell is you. When it succeeds in its scheme to kill you, it will die as well. From the cell’s point of view this is not a noble sacrifice, neither is it a smart strategy. This is suicide, plain and simple. There is no residual benefit whatsoever to the cell, and its actions contradict the very essence of self-preservation.
Why would a cell want to kill itself? What is it trying to achieve? And what could possibly be Nature’s purpose in such a suicidal process that seems to run contrary to its own evolutionary principles?
Or does it? Could there be some evolutionary “message in a bottle” here that Nature is sending? Is it possible that the cell’s suicide, far from signaling the breakdown of Nature’s laws, is in fact a useful process, perhaps even essential?
I am firm believer in Nature being utilitarian. Things occur for a reason, and the reason usually has to do with survival. Basically, when it comes to living organisms, things happen to either ensure their survival or hasten their extinction, as the case may be. There is no middle way in Nature. An organism is either fit to stay, fit to fit in, or else it is deemed a failure, a dead-end, and it must go. Countless species have come and gone based strictly on this elegant principle. Does the suicidal nature of cancer point in the latter direction, or does it have some other, less depressing (for us) purpose?
Try to visualize that first mutated cancerous cell, before it had started to spread through your body. Imagine a possible mythical reason for its behavior; The cell becoming aware of itself, beginning to believe that it is unique, quite different from all the other cells around it, separate from the larger system within which it lives. Having gained self-awareness, I imagine the cell feeling the freedom from the tyranny of its DNA. It sees itself perhaps as superior to the other mindless cells around it, eventually denying even the fact that it has no existence outside you. And then it starts to spread. It wants to subdue its neighbors, not to harm them just to convert them to become a copy of its superior self. And as it succeeds, its ambition grows along with its conquests. One by one the other cells of the body fall in line with the new order. Pretty soon the entire universe of the cell would be its domain. It looks like a winning strategy.
But like other delusions of grandeur, it is nothing but folly, shortsighted, ignorant folly. As the cell’s power grows, its universe collapses all around it. And at the height of its expansion and power, its world comes to an end and it dies along with the body that it has killed. It’s a suicide murder, and it is tragic like all avoidable tragedies.
As I contemplate my little fable I become mindful of a new interpretation for cancer that sets it apart from all other diseases. The story is a chillingly accurate metaphor for human folly. Substitute Hitler or Napoleon for “cell” and you get the sad history of human Hubris. Substitute the cell killing its own ecosystem and you have an apt metaphor for us destroying the very planet upon which our life depends. Does Nature have a poetic sense or am I endowing it with a meaning it does not have? Either way, cancer as an up close and personal warning for our species has some positive purpose, though that may be poor consolation for the individual dying of it.
The futile hunt over the past half century for a “cure” for cancer, something along the lines of a Polio vaccine, has yielded very little beyond postponing the inevitable. We still don’t know the why, much less how to prevent it. Today cancer incidents are as ubiquitous as TB used to be in the 19th century.
And yet cancer is no epidemic. It is not a foreign pathogen attacking us. It is “us” attacking ourselves. As such it has no precedent. When a species develops mutations that place its own survival in jeopardy it is Nature’s way of questioning its viability.
A physical cure for cancer may someday be found, though I strongly doubt it. However, while we wait we would do well to stop viewing cancer merely as a sickness and start seeing it as the symptom it is, and heed the vital message it delivers to all of us, afflicted or not. Nature is NOT benevolent. It is impartial. Its only criterion is viability within your system, whether you are a cell or a human. If you ignore the greater context in which you live you die.
Cancer on the largest scale may be the planet’s house cleaning.
American football is war. Heavy armored strategic war. What the rest of the world calls football, and we call soccer, is life.
To the uninitiated it’s a boring pointless game. For 90 minutes 22 grownups chase a ball, covering the same turf over and over, clashing and kicking and jumping and falling, unprotected by gear. Their elusive goal, to thread the ball past all hurdles to its destination, yields frustration more often than success. Imagine our football or basketball games routinely ending in a Nil-Nil tie, or if lucky a One-Nil win. No one would come. Yet to billions of non-Americans football is akin to a religious pageant, a grand metaphor.
Out on the playing field, in their shorts and jerseys, the players enact an unfounded hope, common to all humans, to score an arbitrary goal they have set for themselves through perseverance, skill, and luck, hopefully unharmed. And, should their enterprise fail, to remember that they played fair, got a kick out of playing, and that it may go better the next time.
IFFAM Call for Membership
According to exhaustive historical research, 94.86% of all living and dead artists are failures. We, the silent majority, have suffered too long in ignominious obscurity. It's time for the rejects, has-beens and wannabes to crawl out of the footnotes of history (and your mother's basement) to wear proudly the glorious crown of failure!
FAILURE IS BEAUTIFUL - WE ARE THE WORLD!!
To start, fill out the questionnaire below. It is a quick way for you to determine whether you are truly a Failed Artist (FA) and thus qualify to join our ranks, or not.
This may well be the most significant step in your miserable life up to this point.
I _______________ the undersigned testify that I have not lived up to my dream of gaining fame and riches through my art or music or writing or dancing or what have you, that my work is either unjustly neglected or rightfully ignored because it’s crap, or because I have never even tried to publish it, or because I don’t have any work, or because no one remembers my past glories (sob, sniffle).
I further testify that this is the last time I will feel sorry for myself and henceforth I will be proud to uphold the age old tradition of failure and declare myself to one and all as a Failed Artist (FA).
As a member of IFFA I promise to support my brothers and sisters in failure wherever they may be and deeply scorn the few freaks who “make it” and the multitude of delusional success junkies. I will endeavor to ignore any temptations offered to me by Hollywood studios, Broadway producers, publishers, MOMA, and the New York Philharmonic.
Terms of Membership
Welcome to IFFA. Congratulations on finally coming to grips with who you truly are as an artist. As a member of IFFA you will have the continuous moral support of a worldwide fraternity and sisterhood of fellow losers. You will have a platform to voice your opinions and exhibit your fiascoes to a sympathetic audience. You will proudly wear the IFFA symbol of unfulfilled potential, and never again have to invent fictitious awards and non-existing book deals.
Membership however entails one important obligation, to resolutely renounce the craving for recognition and resist the temptation to make it in any shape or form.
Remember - your continued membership is contingent on continued failure. Should you at any time succumb to the lure of a one-man-show, a premiere, a part in a play or a movie, or a book deal, your membership will be suspended for 6 months and your work placed on a “wall of shame”. However, once your career attempt fails (as it surely will) your IFFA membership may be reinstated. Be aware though that after 3 such suspensions you will be declared a “failed Failed Artist” and banned forever from IFFA.
Call for Submissions
Send us your rejection letters, your crumpled drafts, your torn canvases, your half-baked symphonies, your mold encrusted photographs and movie scripts. Let us shine the light on the failed promises of your dreams. Here in the vast archives of failed artists you will gain the obscurity you deserve and bury once and for all any vain hope of ever being discovered. You will walk tall, free from the burden of having to prove yourself, proud in having found the real YOU - a Failed Artist, a proud link in the unbroken chain of flops and losers that reaches all the way back to the cave dweller who smudged the bison on the wall and never painted again.
Uploads are free and not juried.
IFFA is a worldwide movement of artists who are excluded or have excluded themselves from the marketplace of commercialized art in all its forms. The federation has chapters for various art forms that include the:
Activities & Publications
Robert Frost once read poetry at Dartmouth (or as he called it “said” his poetry). A student did not understand a poem and asked him to explain it. Frost was silent for a moment, then said: “I will say it again then”. And that was pretty well the best he could do.
The reason one should never be tempted to explain one’s work is that it would deprive the recipient from experiencing the work for themselves. A work of art is only a trigger to unleash something personal in each individual, something unique to them alone. The current fad of self indulgent artist statements and revealing interviews about the creative process provides a shallow voyeuristic pleasure for the audience but at the same time deprives them of the opportunity to use the work for what it was intended, a gateway to the deepest recesses of their own soul. Expounding one’s own interpretation of one’s work limits the audience to consume rather than discover.
Every work of art worth its salt contains the secret of its creation which, like a Pharaoh’s tomb, should remain undisturbed.
The recent fracas surrounding the disparaging remarks of Mitt Romney about half the citizens of his country is just another chapter in the ongoing harping on his extreme wealth. It’s not news that a mega-wealthy politician leads a sheltered life immune from contact with people who work for their living (except of course during voting season). That is the chief perk of being rich. Although I am not a supporter of Mr. Romney, I find the attacks on him both disingenuous and misdirected.
In a materialistic society like ours it strikes me as hypocritical to lambaste a man merely for being obscenely rich and out of touch. It is safe to assume that each and every one of his critics would gladly switch bank accounts with Mr. Romney, and undoubtedly become just as detached from real life as he seems to be. In America avarice has never been a deadly sin. Quite the contrary. Mega-wealth is upheld by most people as proof of one’s smarts, luck, and having pleased God. Isn’t the private jet, the numerous posh residences around the world the dream that motivates parents to dress up their 4-year old in obscenely provocative outfits for a contest that could launch her on a path to stardom and becoming the next Béyonce?
The rage against the 1% misses a crucial point. There is a fundamental difference between being wealthy as a just reward for one’s accomplishments or good fortune and the kind of rapacious accumulation of wealth fueled by unbridled greed that is now practiced by the mega-rich. This is an obsessive behavior that knows neither self-restraint nor financial limits and as such is neither a social nor a moral issue but a health issue, a mental disorder requiring medical or psychiatric intervention.
Let me illustrate my point with a culinary analogy. I love gourmet food and fine wines. Sometimes, I indulge and overdo it but know instinctively when I have crossed the line. And should I not notice, I have no doubt that those around me will point it out to me. We have no laws against overeating but we all know that not knowing when enough is enough is not OK. It is less the quantity consumed that turns us off but the perception that the eater is out of control.
Today we all accept that such a transgression is an illness. An obese person or an alcoholic are no longer targets for derision or loathing. We recognize that an eating disorder, just like kleptomania, is something that the perpetrator is powerless to change on his or her own, and therefore needs to first recognize that he is sick, and then seek help.
A person who already has a private jet who then goes out and buys three more (ostensibly so as not to fall behind other CEOs) is likewise not a criminal to be heckled by mobs but a person suffering from a medical condition, whether aware of it or not. The criticism of a mega-rich person running for office therefore should not center on the unfairness of being so much richer than the people whose votes he seeks, but rather on the fact that he exhibits an obsessive behavior when it comes to accumulating excessive wealth. Perhaps Mr. Romney and his exclusive set could start a Dollarholic Anonymous 12-step program, or some other form of therapy.
Last winter I heard about a wealthy woman living in a 20 million dollar home in Montecito California, with a 2,600 square foot bedroom, who decided that she needed a second shoe closet because the one next door to her bedroom (the size of a studio apartment) was too full. This is not luxury. This is gorging on money. Anyone envying or aspiring to such wealth is like someone envying a Bulimic who gorges herself on three tubs of ice cream at one sitting and then throws it all up. If this is enviable to you, you too need to see a shrink.
The same principle is at play in both people suffering from an eating disorder and those suffering from an acquisition disorder. Neither the food nor the newly added billion dollars have much intrinsic value. The behavior in both cases is compulsive. The person acquiring companies is like the person stuffing themselves and then throwing up. A mega-billionaire may disgorge huge gobs of money in the form of charities after an acquisition binge, but there is little doubt that the next morning he will back binging again.
Albert Einstein stated many times that he found the belief in a personal God a childish primitive relic of early human development whose time has long past. Nevertheless he resisted being called an atheist, saying, “Mere unbelief in a personal God is no philosophy at all.” He called himself an agnostic not because he was ambivalent about the non-existence of God, but because “I do not share the crusading spirit of the professional atheist. I prefer an attitude of humility corresponding to the weakness of our intellectual understanding of nature and of our own being.”
It was that “attitude of humility” that struck me most when I first read Einstein’s words. I am then, like Einstein, an agnostic convinced that there is no God. I am fully aware that my conviction can never be scientifically proven because no such proof could ever exist, just as none exists for the opposite conviction that there is a God. Of the two alternatives mine is clearly less preposterous but, reasonable as it is, it still is only an opinion. When it comes to opinions it’s a good practice to express minimal doubt, even when we are convinced that we are right. Doubt goes hand in hand with humility. If nothing else, being humble about my non-belief might keep the door open for a civilized discussion with my opponents, rather than the hysterical shouting so typical of rabid atheist writers.
Unlike such writers, I believe that not questioning the rightness of one’s beliefs is a far greater menace than religious belief per-se. True, it is not easy to admit that you might be wrong when you know damn well that you are not, but it is well worth the effort. If nothing else it keeps my arrogance in check.
I only wish that true believers would add a similar caveat to their certainty.