Jeff Mangum, genius, is married to Astra Taylor! That was the sound of my mind exploding. Taylor is a filmmaker who was “unschooled” by hippie parents, thus making her a subject of great interest to yours truly. To my chagrin, she has drearily conventional political beliefs, but she’s clearly an extraordinary talent. I suppose romanticize the unschooled more than I should.
Taylor Clark’s piece on Mangum, by the way, is wonderful.
And if Aeroplane really is Jeff Mangum’s final statement to the universe, maybe we should be happy with that—not because of some tired line about going out at your peak (which he likely didn’t reach), but because his story is a kind of modern fable. Many fans see his disappearance only in selfish terms: They’ve been deprived of more great music for no good reason. They can’t understand why Mangum would shun success just to shuffle through his days, and, indeed, when musicians abandon this much promise, the culprit is usually drugs or debilitating accidents or people named Yoko. So he must have gone nuts, right? Well, no. After all, what if Mangum is just being honest? What if he poured his life into achieving musical success only to discover that it wasn’t going to make him happy, so he elected to make a clean break and move on? We should all be so crazy.
There’s a lesson in this for all of us, and it reminds me of the great confounding variable in the inequality picture: what if not everyone is seeking the most remunerative employment they could possibly find? It could be that if everyone did seek the most remunerative employment they could possibly find, we’d have a somewhat higher GDP, we’d outsource somewhat more household production, and wages at the lower end of the scale would be somewhat higher. So in some sense those who choose to live life at a slower pace, to consume more leisure, or who pursue enjoyable yet not terribly useful lines of work (let’s be frank) are actively disadvantaging others, according to a G.A. Cohen-like schema.
But how preposterous is that? To think that we ought to be conscripted in this way miserable strikes me as obviously wrong. There’s a finer point to this that I’m having a hard time articulating: freedom is instrumentally valuable because it delivers greater wealth and health, but the decisions of the Mangums form a well of cultural resourcefulness, a background of creative intelligence, that has less-obvious benefits as well. The Soviet vision of mobilizing all our human resources, a vision that seems to animate (and I know this sounds awfully polemical) the inequality-obsessed, failed because it was fundamentally inhumane. Insofar as so-called upper-tail inequality is driven by a diversity of preferences and lifeways in one of the world’s very few truly freeish societies, I hope we understand what we’re losing when we seek to eliminate it.
It happens to only be the second best thing in Slate this week, after Josh Levin’s “I’m the idiot who bought an HD-DVD player.”