My best friend in the whole world is called Derek. Actually, he's not, but for your purposes, he is. I met Derek when I went to university at age 18 and we spent three years living next to each other. Anyone that you are this closely associated with for these, the most change-ridden years of your life, has a profound impact on you. Me and Derek went through most of the really important early events in a young man's life together and our impact on each other is still readily discernible now.
What makes for close friends is not necessarily the same temperament or the same interests, but similar outlooks. Narcissists - which me and Derek undeniably were - especially love those people who see external events the same way as them because it reinforces and legitimizes their own view of the world. Our own views are meaningless and will tend to make us see ourselves as insane if they cannot be backed up by positive reinforcement from outside. What me and Derek shared and fed off of in one another was an opposition to what I, always the one prone to over-intellectualize, would now call "bourgeois normality".
This did not manifest itself in any sort of political sense, but much more so in a social one. Derek was the sort of young guy who thinks he owns the world and everything in it through the sheer force of his charisma, and I learnt this conceit directly from him. It stems ultimately from the belief in immortality that the young do not arrive at rationally, but because they know in their gut that they will never die. When you are immortal and the whole vista of life and all its opportunity lies before you, you have the paradoxical feeling that nothing matters. The world is just so much raw material for your crafting and shaping through force of will; this applies to other people, too. The hubris of the Greek hero is the entirely unconscious model.
This feeling is coupled in many young men with a rebellion against societal norms. Politeness, the less serious strictures of the law, and sobriety go out the window; and a zeal for experimenting with boundaries and taboos comes in. The whole complex of feelings finds its expression in the binge drinking session, a ritual snobbishly excluded from academic analysis but which forms such a central part of the lives of virtually all youngsters in Britain today. It is "out on the town" that alcohol both lowers the inhibitions and becomes an excuse for behaviour on the boundaries of acceptable conduct, all in an environment that permits and encourages it.
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"Let's go fuck it up," Derek's voice would say to me down the phone or from my doorway. The exhortation would come at all times, even if I was trying to read for my degree or perhaps even spend some time forging a stable relationship with a girl. If I resisted, Derek would invoke my responsibility to not let him down and invariably bring up the movie The Wedding Crashers.
One interpretation of this movie is that it is just about a couple of dumb guys who refuse to grow up, but as a couple of young guys who were not even expected to have grown up it served as a model. In this movie the two friends demand unstinting optimism and strength of will from each other as they go about flagrant abuses of the trust of others and of societal norms; the shady nature of their activities demand this close bond of trust between one another, like a terrorist cell or a squadron of brownshirts. Derek wasn't very cerebral but what he meant to evoke was this tight bond between us and how we defined it in opposition to what we saw as "bourgeois normality". I, better read but ultimately just as foolish as he, would tell him about the need to avoid "murdered youth". I think I once even evoked Nietzsche's value-creating overman.
The practical consequence of all of this was expressed in the binge-drinking session. Groups of young men out on the town sink into the realm of inhibition almost like into a warm bath, casting off their knowledge of duties and obligations to others and even themselves with each successive drink; I have seen at least two men sink down into this abyss and never return from it. As inhibitions slip away, what you can do is defined almost entirely by your capabilities rather than by the ever-present burden of other people's expectations that we carry with us normally. For a man of vast self-belief this is a liberating experience. You go down into that abyss and what emerges out of the other side is, in one sense, the real you, because it is you shorn of pretence; in another sense it is not you at all, because the real us are social constructs as much as we are mere personalities.
A lot of people imagine that when groups of young men go out drinking, that their main aim is girls. Me and Derek would have said that nothing is further from the truth and we would look down on this attitude as too parochial and unimaginative. If you look at the behaviour of binge-drinking males, you will find many of them agree, for their actions seem almost calculated to repel females; certainly they repel any female who, in my estimation, is worth being with.
I love to lavish attention on any girl who I am sweet on and I always have done; but out on the town, I am in no position to be lavishing attention. Nor is any other man who participates in the ritual of binge-drinking. This activity is about the expression of the personal ego and pure, unfettered selfishness. It is about the exercise of charisma and will in a chaotic environment in which almost anything goes; its highest aim is the mere reinforcement of the feeling of being oneself and of social conquest.
Much more so than in everyday life, me and Derek felt that out there we were somebody. While we were out, we did not care who we offended or how we appeared. We would talk to strangers and revel in their attention. We would lie about our jobs, our age and who we were and congratulate each other afterwards in fits of laughter for our skill at keeping the fantasy going. We would be the life and soul of the party. We would drink more than anyone and feel the consequences for two days afterwards. And of all this we were inordinately, stupidly, proud.
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A guy cannot live his life like this ever, and the realization dawns over you gradually. Eventually I decided I wanted to pursue an academic career and I had to take studying seriously. The hangovers become unbearable. I cannot count the number of times I woke up fully clothed in my bed with a sick feeling in my stomach, not just because I had consumed over a week's recommended maximum intake in one night but because I had no idea what I had done the night before: who I had offended, what personal items I had lost, sometimes what girls I had kissed. It is the particular cruelty of the hangover that it strikes you at the moment when you are wondering all of these things, and it makes the hangover depression unbearable.
Transcending youth means to realize your own flaws and, even more importantly, your own limitations. For the narcissistic youth this means you have to overcome your inordinate love of yourself, just like you have to overcome your inordinate love of an unsuitable partner when you are trying to get over your first young romance. You have to ask not what the world can do for you, but for what you must do for the world if you wish to remain within it.
Ancient philosophers used to talk about moderation as the highest virtue, something that me and Derek would have laughed at - "bourgeois normality", I would have thought. "Let's fuck it up." But when you have lived a life not just of idle pleasure, but of risky pleasure - a lifestyle of restless pushing against boundaries and people just to prove to yourself the validity of your own stupid vanity - one day you wake up and realize that there are more sublime pleasures in participation, in using your personality and the force of your will constructively.
Ultimately it means a more realistic self-appraisal, a certainty of your ability to get by and draw sublime pleasure from society as a whole rather than your little conspiratorial, anti-social grouping. It is the end of a form of rebellion. This is attended by a realization that your own bare, uninhibited ego is not as attractive to others as you once believed, and, finally, by the realization of the risks of the path you are going down.
Because if you don't come back from the brink, one day you fall over it for ever.