I heard an interesting turn of phrase the other day involving a cultural figure being described as “a compelling mix of function and dysfunction.” I found it to be a sentiment broad enough to describe pretty much anyone while also calling to mind very specific archetypes: Chris Farley, Courtney Love, David Foster Wallace, Bill Clinton, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Mike Tyson would all qualify. It’s a three-part stew of subjective measures that generally resolves to a universally satisfying conclusion because of the internal dependencies:
- Compelling: The most subjective of the three components, but the only one where an argument of its validity is its own justification.
- Function: The lynchpin. Merely dysfunctional people usually aren’t that compelling to the neutral observer.
- Dysfunction: The multiplier. The more that a person has to overcome, the more fascinating we find their work and, by extension, their persona.
If I were Chuck Klosterman, this would be the part of the essay where I try to wrangle this into an equation that weighs the perceived value of a person’s creative output against the depth of their dysfunction and attempts to determine how much of our collective fascination with the subject is due to the quality of the work and how much is due to the spectacle that surrounds it all. There’d be a lot of math and I’d get to trot out my pet theory about how Waltz #2 is the only possible B-side to a fresh pressing of Eleanor Rigby. It’d be a great, sprawling mess of fun, but I think there’s something more interesting going on here.
You always have a second chance to pile on depression
The idea that America is the land of second chances is such a cliché that I can’t even find a trustworthy source for that quote (Email me if you know for sure – yes I Googled it). Our cultural obsession with penitence is so ingrained that we have become numb of its grotesque consequence. And so our willingness to accept bad behavior from those we admire is apparently limitless. Hardly a day goes by without a social media outrage, a regretful public acknowledgement, a rush of apologists, a backlash against the apologists. This apology theater serves to reassure us that we care, but the dysfunction that lies at the root of this all – the utter disregard for our fellow human – remains unchanged.
It is true that we all are a compelling mix of function and dysfunction, but it is no longer true that being compelling is enough.