January 7, 2007

Tyranny of Things Being Themselves

Author’s note after finishing: This was going to be about my reading project but it veered away, to put it mildly.

Reading several books in a row that all try to take on the big issues – that present a philosophical “take” on the world as seen through (or equated with) a particular aesthetic or emotional “take” on the world – it begins to be clear that none of them can actually be right because they all contradict each other. A sardonic, nihilistic novel and a mournful, spiritual novel can’t both be right.

So you say, “Two books are like two people, not like two arguments; there’s no question of whether a person is ‘right’.” This is absolutely true – worlds in literature are personalities, not realities. But in the course of reading a book that attempts to be a book of substance, don’t you get the feeling that you’re being coaxed and prodded and toyed with, all in relation to the end of believing something that the book believes? Even when the author is leaving us alone, in relation to the subject matter – free to make up our own minds, as they say, though of course we always are – it is still the case that the author is, significantly, leaving us alone, and doing this in relation to a belief. Even when the author does not necessarily believe what the book believes, or even when the author has intentionally crafted the book to believe something that cannot be readily flattened and put into words, nonetheless every book that touches on life seems to believe something about it, and in reading the book we are in negotiation with that belief.

But then, as I say, along comes another book with its own contradictory persona.

Maybe I am peculiar in this but I continue to believe that I am just peculiar in articulating it – I feel, if not intimidated, certainly challenged, implicated, somehow called upon to defend my own particular being, by the very presence of things that are particularly other than me and have any even remotely human qualities. For example – I’ve always thought that when I eventually write about this phenomenon, which seems to be now, I would write about – the ad-copy (really, all-purpose smarmy writer) phenomenon of punchy short sentences with smart-assed periods. Ever read one of those?

You just did.

Boo-yah! To me, the punch in these sentences isn’t just rhythmic, it’s something smug; it’s the intimation that the implicit persona behind the sentence (even when it’s saying “got milk?” or whatever and there’s no explicit persona at all) is… well, something that can’t be put into words because it’s sub-rational. But it plays on my sense of status and worth. I think that’s how it works for everyone.

I’ve just been searching and cannot find a name for the “drawing a zigzag from top to bottom while rocking my neck laterally like a bird” gesture – which at this point has just about transcended racial boundaries – but the intended effect of this nonsense is the “sass” equivalent of what a cat does when it arches its back. The fact that it “reads” at all is, I’m saying, evidence of our propensity to read art – in this case choreography – as persona, and then to feel cowed by it.

I get mad at all sorts of stuff – most often: ad campaigns, the decor in restaurants, people in public with attention-getting fashion choices – and then have to defend my annoyance to the people I’m with. The answer is always the same – that I have been implicitly called to the table by the very existence of these things; that in being, they are also saying “this is how one should be” and that I resent being forced to engage in argument with that. This sounds silly when I’m saying it but it’s the very same phenomenon that occurs with any coherent work of art – the work asserts a personality/worldview that in being perceived must be reckoned with. I talk about books “believing” things because these things are present in the aura of persona, of mind, that surrounds them despite their being ink and paper, and so far as I know there’s no correct way to talk about that aura, the “life of a book,” distinctly from the book itself. But it is distinct; it is the thing we actually encounter, and to me its nature is anthropomorphic and thus has a potential (and potentially antagonistic) social relation to me.

In books, though, the “you’ve made a mistake in not being this” challenge, which so offends me in restaurants, is generally made palatable by the perceivable distance between the maker and the work. If I can be assured that the author offers a book and its belief system as an artifact to be held in the hand and considered, then I feel safe with it. If, on the other hand, the author offers the book as an emanation of (or a conduit for) his own persona, then things become higher-stakes. This is exactly what rubbed me so thoroughly the wrong way about Everything Is Illuminated. And yet it’s still possible for a heartfelt “this is me and why isn’t it you” book to remain a pleasant encounter. All it has to do is be offering its differences rather than reveling in them.

Intolerant decor – there, I found a word for it, “intolerant” – intolerant decor, like intolerant ad copy, is inescapably rude because it has no apparent maker to distinguish from it.

Submitting to the actual experience of a work of art is submitting to the challenge of the essential nature of a thing that is not you. The essentially un-you nature of the thing. The potential consolation of art is that it is open to you despite not being you.

I seem to have wandered into the sort of loopily ungrounded art writing that really bugs me. Hopefully I’ve gotten here by enough degrees that it doesn’t feel loopily ungrounded to you THE READER but since it feels loopy to me THE WRITER then we’re probably in trouble.

To finish with the last bit of thought that needs to go in here somewhere – since people seem to be pleased to take the smirk (or eye-roll) that is readily theirs after I explain that I’m being whiny because I feel tyrannized by some period or other, I have been repeatedly told that this way of thinking is particular to me and should be shaken off. Nonetheless I must continue to think this is not true. I’m ready to concede oversensitivity to these sorts of things and, what’s far more pernicious, an over-willingness to indulge minor annoyances by expressing them – but I firmly believe that all these things I see are imbued with an animistic smugness not just for me but for my fellow man as well… because I see him everywhere climbing aboard, buying that T-shirt, telling people that restaurant is amazing and he loves it there, carrying that book around, preening like the people in that ad – people who never existed… but now they do, because of everyone who lost the argument with the voice of the ad the first time around. It’s like the practical joke that, once shamed by it, one is eager to play on someone else. And yes, it makes me angry when someone plays that joke on me. This is how you look at me, your fellow human being? For shame.

This stuff has been waiting for ten years to get expressed, and I’m doing it, now that I’m here, in part out of a sense of obligation to seize the opportunity now that it has spontaneously arisen. But I don’t really feel this way so much anymore. A good solution to the tyranny of things being themselves is to feel what I like to call “superior to everyone and everything,” which trumps all “but why would you be you?” arguments with a nice shiny “you wouldn’t understand.” I was avoiding this route for many years because I had learned that humility is preferable to arrogance, but in a smug society, humility just means a lot of wrangling with the ego of every damn period. Embracing a vague sense of ill-defined but untouchable superiority whenever possible gives one a nice sense of freedom, say, while walking around New York City, where every goddamn thing thinks it’s better than you.

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