The Torturous Inner Life of the Man Who Seems to Have it All

How many people whose lives we admire actually maintain a torturous inner life? How many ideal men and women — and I don't mean perfect, I mean ideal, which is to say perfectly flawed — actually are consumed by insecurity or anxiety or guilt?

In American Pastoral, the character Swede is perceived as an ideal man in every respect. But his outer life is

accompanied by an inner life, a gruesome inner life of tyrannical obsessions, stifled inclinations, superstitious expectations, horrible imaginings, fantasy conversations, unanswerable questions. Sleeplessness and self-castigation night after night. Enormous loneliness. Unflagging remorse… And in the everyday world, nothing to be done but respectably carry on the huge pretense of living as himself, with all the shame of masquerading as the ideal man.

Was this Tiger Woods' inner life the past few years? Could it be the private mind of a close friend who's duping you with his charade? Has a journalist done her job if she does not know what keeps her subject up late at night, lying in bed, staring at the ceiling?

By the way, fiction addresses these type of issues the best. Unrelated: Philip Roth is a fucking genius.


Wise and poetic advice for the exceptional from the same text:

As with any exaggerated trait that sets you apart and makes you exceptional — and enviable, and hateable — to accept your beauty, to accept its effect on others, to play with it, to make the best of it, you're well-advised to develop a sense of humor.

Otherwise, I'm told people will just hate you. This is not the only reason to try to develop a sense of humor…

14 comments on “The Torturous Inner Life of the Man Who Seems to Have it All
  • I remember a post of yours with a stat about a very high percentage of pro basketball players- people with huge egos elevated to the top of the sports world- suffering from depression. Whether acknowledged publicly or not, I think everyone (possibly to different degrees) suffers from being utterly confused: And if you truly don’t then you can bet that at some point life will throw a brick through the window that is your shallow confidence.

  • The kind of traumatic inner life you describe seems more characteristic of intellectuals and entrepreneurs, not sports stars. In general I have gotten the impression that sports stars cannot have too much going on in their heads or they wouldn’t be able to focus the way they do, both in competition and incessant practice. No, I think Tiger’s just illustrating Chris Rock’s dictum, “A man is as faithful as his options.”

  • Sports stars seem extremely adept at compartmentalizing, that’s for sure. Perhaps that is not down to occupation but that those who are standout athletes often tend to be extremely narcissistic.

  • I’m taken by this lede that refers to ‘maintaining’ a torturous inner life, as that is exactly what so many neurotics do– they use a lot of psychic energy to cultivate their neuroses, just as if they were tending a sicko’s garden of unearthly delights.

    I’ve been a fan of Philip Roth’s writing since I first read Portnoy’s Complaint, when he was actually a Young Turk shaking up the “establishment”– you know– the ‘system’ created by our ossified regressive elders.

    Please allow me to direct you to this interview with the liquid-eyed master himself by Tina Brown (why is it that if a man wears a dress shirt unbuttoned so low as Tina’s, he’s a sleazy Studio 54 reject, but it’s perfectly acceptable for a woman?).

    I love the moment when he says “the people who took exception to it [Portnoy’s Complaint] are mostly dead now.”

    At least he didn’t have to wait till they all died to shed his reputation as a “crazed penis” (his words).

    Tortured souls do tend to be self-defeating, and have a way of eventually destroying themselves, at least symbolically if not literally.

    I sure that’s why so many of my talented friends have killed themselves in spectacular car-wrecks.

    I consider that the “ultimate indiscretion”– far worse than a lesbian strapping on a green dildo.;-)

  • The Swede character is a hypothesis. An alternative hypothesis is that people mostly are what they seem. As Confucius said: “How can a man hide himself?”

    I don’t think the examples of sports stars and other celebrities are good ones because we see these people from such a distance. But our friends and colleagues whom we see often in person likely would have a much harder time hiding a torturous inner-life, I suspect.

  • I definitely don’t mean to say that everyone has a torturous inner life, I mean to say that no one with some degree of intelligence has the capacity to be 100% confident all the time. There’s a big distinction between being utterly confused some of the time (what I said everyone suffers from) and having a torturous inner life. What I said is if someone is truly completely confident all the time (as many sports stars appear to the public, whether or not that appearance is an accurate reflection of what happens when the cameras are turned off) then they’re probably missing something important.

  • The article says: “Letterman is, by his own admission, one of the most unhappy..”

    Not sure if his own admission is credible here. It’s interesting that when something is called an “admission” instead of say, a “claim”, it sounds like a naked fact.

  • Vince,

    How did you miss out ripping your favorite solipsist DFW while saying “Tortured souls do tend to be self-defeating, and have a way of eventually destroying themselves…”

  • Krishna,

    I’m saving my juice for the next time Ben posts about him.;-)

    Seriously, though, David Foster Wallace doesn’t fit the description of a man who seems to have it all on the outside but is hiding a tortured inner life.

    DFW didn’t hide his neuroses like the Swede, he wore them like a ragged stained suit for all the world to see, proudly.

    He celebrated them.

    And that’s why his writing bothers me so much– he didn’t write to exorcise his demons, he wrote to nourish them.

    I think it’s very sad that a man with such incredible potential directed all the force of his abundant psychic energy toward himself, which is always toxic to happiness.

  • That’s another Gem from you Vince. I can hear DFW knocking from inside his coffin with all the urge to come back and live a second life minus the oddities you’d vent your spleen on.

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