by George Baselitz
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I’ve been thinking a lot about satisfaction lately, which is ostensibly what everyone wants but no one actively seeks out. An analogy that’s been stuck in my head forever: getting into a relationship is like choosing a car, but being in the relationship is like driving it. As far as I can tell, people are obsessed with choosing the “right” car, but if you tell them the driving experience is terrible they’ll be like “No I don’t even care, it’s my dream car.” Then later on they’ll complain about how they’re dissatisfied because, well, life just sucks and no one is ever satisfied.
I’m serious about this: never take life advice from people who don’t know what they care about and don’t understand what makes them happy. These people have no agency. They have never in their life exercised their will to actually obtain something that gives them joy and pride. They’ve relentlessly exercised their will to obtain things that they like the idea of, that they think they “need.” They always think pleasure is a sin. A common argument: “If I wanted to be happy all day, I would just sit on the couch and play video games. Happiness is not the point of life. The point of life is [greatness] [ambition] [fidelity to tradition].” Omg. If someone says this to you, they literally do not understand that you can do something you actually ENJOY and be really really good at it. They’re so dominated by their superego that suffering is their only god.
I used the relationship metaphor because I think a lot of people are unhappy in their relationships but also kind of prefer to be unsatisfied? I’m sure you have friends who are in an equilibrium that seems frankly terrible, where they don’t get what they need from their partner and don’t feel loved in the way they want to be loved. But if you ask them why they stay, they’ll be like, “I’ll never do better. This person is the one for me.” I’m always like, what about mutual respect and pleasure and connection and someone choosing you because they truly want to be with you? What about satisfaction?
For lot of people, the fantasy of satisfaction is better than satisfaction. Being in a story someone has written about you is better than being in a story you’ve written yourself. Because then you’re free from having to act: you’re free from self-knowledge. You can just wander around waiting for things to happen to you, choosing things that are wrong, and believe that this is just how life works. Some of the most talented, intelligent, hard-working people I know are the ones with the least agency.
Another metaphor: I think female beauty is like this. I was having a conversation with my friend M about how when we were teenagers we wanted very much to be considered conventionally attractive. Beyond that: we wanted to be perfect in every way (insert the Gillian Flynn Cool Girl Monologue). Because our only conception of what a good life was was performative: if you’re beautiful and smart and lovable then someone really special (or some really wonderful institution!!) will approve of you. And that’s pretty much where the fantasy ends and begins, because for so many women the idea of satisfaction is essentially nonexistent. The idea that you have to enjoy what you get for it to matter was just not a thing I had ever really thought about with any seriousness. I knew I liked to work hard and I was good at working hard. I noticed that maybe I enjoyed wanting things more than getting them? It had never occurred to me that that was because I wanted the wrong things.
These days when I think about agency I think about how freedom is terrifying. Because there’s no one to approve of what you’re going after, no one to tell you you’re good for pursuing it. To be free, you have to stop wanting approval. For most of us, approval is the signal that matters more than anything else. It matters more than pleasure, more than satisfaction, more than love. To wear someone else’s fantasy like a second skin is liberation from having your own. To chase after what you can never enjoy is a way of avoiding the question of what to do when you get it.