Author, educator and cultural critic Mark Greif is co-founder of the journal n+1, which is known for it’s hip and intellectual blend of literature, commentary, and think pieces.
His new book is a collection of essays, many of which first appeared in that journal. In it, he critiques foodies, talks about the death of the hipster, and has no less than three pieces on the meaning of life. The book is called “Against Everything” and when Brendan spoke to Mark, he asked if he was really against… everything.
Mark Greif: I was a bit worried, when I chose the title, because I was afraid people would stop and say, “Are you against everything? Are you really against everything?” My little niece learned the title, and she was thinking it through. She said, “Your daughter, Simone, your three-year-old, are you against Simone?” And I had to say, “I’m not against Simone; I’m for Simone.”
But, I think of this idea, “Against Everything,” as maybe a method rather than something that you would start making lists for all the things you’re against. That is, I do think we live in a world with a lot of shouted orders and advertising demands and lies and proposals that just can’t be true, but in which you’re supposed to do a lot of things, or we suppose we ought to do. We ought to be exercising, we ought to be eating right, we ought to be thinking the right thoughts.
So, “Against Everything,” to me, is just a kind of principle of saying, “What if I did press my nose up to it or put my weight against it? Would this idea actually stand up? Are the things I’m supposed to like the things I like? Are the things I’m supposed to vilify really things I dislike?” And try to start from zero.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Often with contrarianism, I find it’s kind of idealistic, right? To take on these things is to believe that there is a better way or there could be a better way.
Mark Greif: Yeah, I do think there’s a principle of kind of joy, hope, and comedy in it all, right? Searching for some kind of happy ending rather than just seeing tragedy everywhere you look.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Well, I’d like to talk about the first essay in this book because you tackle the tyranny of exercise, where you kind of critique the modern gym-goer. You know, a lot of listeners might think, “How can anyone take on someone’s instinct to take care of their body?” It seems unassailable.
Mark Greif: You know, I had a vision — not a positive vision, but the kind of vision that knocked William Blake down in his garden or something, and he saw heaven and hell. I was in a gym.
I was on a StairMaster. I was there for all the right reasons, and I looked around, and I began to see my fellows torturing themselves, hanging themselves upside down, sweating, straining, but not looking at one another, not even laughing, not acknowledging the people around them. And I thought, “Oh, my God, we are the damned!”
And, you know, I looked around at each person, like, on the lat pull-down, and I thought, “You are damned!” And, you know, a Prussian crucified on a pull-up bar: “You are damned.” And I thought, “Well, me, too, clearly. What am I doing here?”
So, the essay, it stemmed from that — you know, an effort to, like, think, “What do these things look like?” You know, “When did people last pull hard on iron bars to lift something?”
Well, you know, they used to do it to raise a house or something, or raise a barn. What is the connection between the kind of labor that we used to do, in which, in many ways — thank God — we’ve been relieved of when we’re no longer hard at work in an industrial factory all day. But it suddenly seems we’re reproducing — for leisure, for health, to take care of our bodies — in our off time.
Brendan Francis Newnam: It seems like one of the takeaways that you want people to have is, “the distraction from living that comes with endless life maintenance.” It seems like one of the themes is that, if we go to these places and spend all this time thinking about our bodies and perfecting them, that we are going to be avoiding the actual gifts we have as being citizens of the 21st century and live a full, complete life because we’re so distracted by our bodily limitations.
Mark Greif: And it’s exactly what you say. There is a kind of peculiar sense in which, once you start asking yourself, “Are there other ways to do things like move?” Or, “What are the real necessities of life?” You do start to think we spend a huge amount of time storing away and preserving life for the future rather than living it. Or maybe that, in a way, we don’t recognize our own freedoms partly because it’s hard to know what else you would do with them.
Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah. Well, your kind of critique of, for lack of a better word, health — extends into your essay on food where you kind of talk about and critique foodie-ism and that sort of thing.
You end your chapter with a question that speaks to what you were just saying, which is, “Health is our model of all things invisible and unfelt. If, in this day and age, we rejected the need to live longer, what would rich Westerners live for instead?”
Do you have any ideas or suggestions for the rich Westerner? What would you rather them have, be doing?
Mark Greif: [Laughs.] I hope that was my most satanic laugh because, you know, there is a great temptation, and, in a way, it becomes its own business of prophecy and advice. You say, “Oh, you miss out that the one true goal of life is….”
I look at myself, and I look at how I spend my day, and I think about the ways that I do think about my food and my political allegiances and my exercise and my… you know, and in the midst of all of it, it always comes back to me — I can’t remember who it was — but there’s some character in a novel, an old novel, who says, suddenly, “I did not know what to do with my moral freedom.”
And that, you know, as things go, I actually think that’s a pretty good state of mind to dwell in. Rather than instantly glomming onto some other ultimate goal or some proper ideology, we would all do… now I’m becoming… here it comes, the guru. We would all do well, I think, to spend a little more time kind of realizing that we don’t know what to do with our freedom.
Brendan Francis Newnam: You have degrees from Harvard, Oxford, Yale. Any other degrees I’m forgetting there in that list? You were at some center in Princeton. I’m talking to you in Stanford.
You are…you are of the academy, and yet, you write about food, exercise. You also write about Radiohead and hip-hop and punk. Tell me about that impulse to take on these things when you may actually be judged from the academic world for taking these on.
Mark Greif: You know, I take the lesson of scholarship — I mean the full-on, hardcore, my-entire-life-is-in-the-library kind of university scholarship — as being a lesson of follow the things that you are passionate about no matter how obscure, but also, if possible… well, as Henry James said, “Be the kind of person on which nothing is lost.”
Pay attention, and if the university is known, at its best, as a place where people with Albert Einstein hair wander around with their heads in the clouds, I think that same kind of intensity of focus at this moment — and this is more the cultural argument of the book — at this moment, needs to be applied to the details of the things you do every day and the things that, actually, you spend all your time doing and really care about, but when push comes to shove, you don’t think of as worthy of — not worthy of Einstein’s attention, you know?
Brendan Francis Newnam: Yeah. I would need Einstein to help me figure out this new StairMaster at the local Y. It is so… there’s this computer screen.
Mark Greif: Yes.