Editor’s note: The following is an excerpt of a recent conversation on a longstanding listserv devoted to the work of David Foster Wallace, lightly edited and presented here with the authors’ permission.
From: Mike J.
I agree that Inside is super-recursive and virtuosic, well-made and successful on its own terms, but fatally lacking in mirth. It left me with a hollow, sad feeling. A supposedly funny thing I’ll never watch again. It’s a glimpse of the thing that killed Wallace.
There is an antique Kraepelinian mental disorder known as “involutional melancholia” and sadly it doesn’t mean “self-involved melancholia”, otherwise it could have been the next big thing.
There are forms of self-hatred that are just as narcissistic as megalomania. The common thread is obsessive self-involvement. Burnham presents this as pre-empting the thoughts of the other: “I know what you are thinking, I’m way ahead of you.”
The show is a masterful portrayal of the prison of narcissism… No Exit with an even smaller cast. It is permeated with despair at the inability to make authentic contact with others, while betraying hatred and contempt in every direction. The Facetime-with-mom sequence is a hackneyed comedic premise that could have allowed room for a glimmer of affection or warmth, or a hint that mom’s fumbling with the phone is worth enduring because there is a bond of love, however attenuated. But it’s all empty. The kicker about dad speaks for itself.
Also reminiscent of David Foster Wallace: the “all eyes on me” sequence, which exhibits the nested experiences of Burnham’s hunger for attention, his self-contempt for his hunger for attention, and the final “don’t-hate-me-have-compassion-look-how-I-hate-myself.” Moments where one might feel sympathy or be moved by the sufferings of these self-involved men are bracketed by displays of “look how I’m manipulating you, you chump,” creating an impermeable barrier… either man, believing in the power of his own artifice, would almost have to believe that any love that came his way was fraudulent, the result of his own manipulations.
Look, I like cleverness as much as anyone, and the shock of recognition in the recursion of self-commentary is a powerful thing. What makes Inside so suffocating is there’s no escape from the snowglobe, no cracks in the system, no “we need the eggs.” Even Pink Floyd’s The Wall (which I’ve always found unbearably bombastic) ends with the possibility of human contact.
Escape from the hell of solipsism, in my opinion, comes from making a tolerant shrug: Yes, we are silly monkeys, and we like our vanity and self-criticism, none of which amounts to a pitcher of warm piss, but we are somehow adorable and lovable despite it all, and we have our good moments. Love is possible.
Burnham presents his thing extremely deftly. I make no assumptions about how closely the character in the show may or may not map onto the actual Bo Burnham, except I hope it’s highly fictionalized, because the character’s misery is nothing to wish on anyone (with a few choice exceptions).
Caveat: I am old.
From: Hillary B.
I hear that, and I think it’s valid as a response, BUT it also shows a possible way out of the cage by sitting down and doing some work, doing the boring stuff like eating cereal and taking care of yourself until you get back to a place where you can walk out the door again.
Somewhat false (it doesn’t always work) or not, that’s helpful.
H. who is also an old
From: Mike J.
If you like this work or find it uplifting or inspiring in any way, that’s terrific, I would not sneer or discourage that in a million years. Inside has certainly stayed with me, which I take to be a signal that a work has substance. Ugly substance is still substance. It’s not quite over the high-water mark (set by the movies Black Robe, Requiem for a Dream and Dancer in the Dark) of good things I wish I had not seen, but it’s in the category.
The skill and craft and hard work is evident. It’s worth watching for the DIY lighting effects alone. The songs show mastery of contemporary pop, with an anthemic chorus … and Burnham’s way of evoking a whole arrangement with minimal materials is something to admire.
But Inside is also a reductio ad inferno of the larger cultural-industrial complex—the attention economy, where attention = wealth. A warning sign: “Go no further, here be monsters.” Which, if it marks some kind of cultural turning-away, would be a great thing. I doubt this will happen.
My day job is in doing psychotherapy, and I have seen with my own eyes how quite gifted individuals can dig their way out of the prison of admiration-seeking, scrabbling through stone with a little tin spoon, and into daylight. It is possible.
It’s easy to imagine that the actual Bo Burnham has always impressed others and evoked admiration and envy. He’s a gifted dude. This will seduce and dazzle an individual into trying to be sustained emotionally by chasing this kind of nourishment-free gratification. I dislike the overused metaphor of addiction, but it’s probably apt here. It’s a false satisfaction that takes over and blocks access to truer rewards.
I am serious as a cerebro-vascular accident when I say it’s got to be a major driving force in the thing that killed David Foster Wallace. I believe he wrote a book about it.
Burnham shows us his pitiful hunger for admiration while he legitimately evokes admiration through his creation, the product of talent and loads of hard work. (A problem: If I were able to give Burnham my applause and admiration, the way I feel like being generous toward a performer who has moved me, I would be complicit in his self-destruction much like buying drinks for an amusing alcoholic who was hell-bent on an early death. That makes me feel stingy. I digress)
The Bo character shows us his hunger for attention alongside his hateful self-disdain for having this hunger. Self-awareness just makes things worse. “I’m the piece of shit at the center of the universe” is one of those AA clichés of the sort Wallace was so fond of.
Some talented people come to hate their talent and feel contempt for people who are taken in and impressed by it, but are either economically dependent upon the talent or otherwise unable to give it up. It’s an honest-to-goodness dilemma; neither claiming the talent as the golden ticket that will solve all needs in life, nor turning away from it, will produce a viable solution. It’s hard for people to have empathy for someone who has so much that is legitimately enviable, the classic miserable-star, poor-little-rich-girl story.
What frees people, in my experience, is to go in a direction orthogonal to these opposing forces: at right angles to the back-and-forth. Usually a kind of loving tolerance is the key. “Yes, I can write like an angel, but when I’m doing anything else I’m an ordinary schmuck like everyone else.” Even the habit of liking/needing attention can be the object of loving forbearance, as a silly vulnerability. “Yeah, I like being noticed, it’s dumb but not the end of the world… I still get to be a person and try to be happy.”
The talent, the impressiveness, the gifts, the athletic or musical genius, the stunning good looks, etc. They are there to be enjoyed. There’s no reason not to. (Sometimes a person needs to discover whether or not they actually enjoy them; that’s another issue.) I hold that some of the satisfactions in life come from using one’s abilities. Fish gotta swim, bird gotta fly. But talents do not make one a worthwhile person, let alone one deserving of love and happiness. The issue of being granted dispensation from normal ethical and legal constraints comes into play here as well: cf. #MeToo.
Deserving love and happiness comes from elsewhere. The realization that attention and admiration are not love doesn’t eliminate the pleasure of being noticed, it just makes it more moderate and realistic, or even a matter of practicality. Getting attention might be essential to your job. People have to remember who you are, so you can sell tickets and make a living. The joy of creating a song or a novel isn’t that one is personally redeemed or undergoes apotheosis and is elevated to a special, rarefied mode of existence… it’s probably best for it to be a craftsmanlike satisfaction, like making a good sturdy table.
IN CONCLUSION, a number of too-clever titles for a review have occurred to me, but the only one that I recall right now is “The attention-hunger artist.”
[Others wrote in expressing concern about Burnham’s jokes about suicide, about extroversion and pandemic isolation, and the desire for attention as a “coping mechanism”.]
From: Mike J.
> Is it wrong to seek out pleasure? Is it always an addictive behavior?
I cannot imagine any kind of desirable life that forbids seeking pleasure. I think some folks here took my comments as disapproving or framing any seeking of attention as inherently pathological.
Nobody said this, but I think there was reaction to my invoking the construct of narcissism. “Narcissist” has unfortunately become a catch-all pejorative. Maybe some felt I was calling Mr Burnham a bad name.
Narcissism is an element of everyone’s psyche. It’s the homeostatic process that manages a person’s self-esteem. For some reason we need to feel all right about ourselves or we break down. (I didn’t vote for this system.) When a person’s narcissistic equilibrium is going all right, it fades into the background, sort of like you notice the air temperature mostly when it’s too hot or cold. People who we say have problems with narcissism have a hole in the bucket. They need a steady supply of inputs to make them feel good about themselves.
It’s relevant here because the work at hand had so much to say about the hunger for attention and the excruciating feelings about having that hunger. There’s nothing at all terrible about wanting the adoration of thousands. It’s a little peculiar if you ask me but it’s a free country, people can want whatever they like. And, as I suggested here, seeking attention can be pragmatically advantageous, truly the smart thing, if you are in certain lines of work. Putting a lot of effort into getting admiration and attention is not always an expression of unhealthy narcissism … but it tends to kinda look that way.
What’s bad is if you are expecting the adoration of thousands to make you feel all right about yourself…. And it’s only bad because it won’t fucking work in any reliable way. You can fill Madison Square Garden with adoring crowds and bring them to their feet with exultation—an amazing accomplishment—and what happens next? They turn to one another and say, “Want to split a cab?” And they LEAVE.
A coping mechanism? Yes, we are pretty much made of coping mechanisms, it’s coping mechanisms all the way down, or as I prefer, defenses. (Coping with what? The human condition, the slings and arrows, our impulses, wishes, uncertainty, loneliness, pain and frustration, and the knowledge that we will die. You can make your own list.)
It’s failed coping mechanisms that constitute pathology, coping mechanisms that give more pain than relief, to make an irresponsibly wild generalization. Coping mechanisms that involve jabbing frantically at the button in hopes of a reward, in the certain knowledge that the button has been disconnected for years. I’m not judging a person in this predicament. I would like to see them find their way toward a more satisfying modus vivendi.
Burnham (the character or the artist, I’m not trying to discern) tells us and shows us he is deeply miserable, really writhing in agony at some points. (If others don’t see it this way, that would account for a wildly different reading, and I have no wish to argue.)
I take him at his word when he says he is suffering horribly. Life involves suffering. I am against needless suffering. There is a pragmatic, proof-in-the-pudding basis for this reading. His coping mechanisms, we might say, are not doing the job. He is stubbornly pushing on a door marked “pull.” His facility for earning attention through his legitimately well-made creations does not give him what he needs. Won’t someone tap him on the shoulder and hint there is another way? I hope the actual, breathing Mr. B already knows all about this. Yes, he deserves satisfaction from his original and beautifully crafted creative work, and he deserves to be happy because he is a human being who hasn’t, as far as I know, caused anyone harm.