I liked Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby – the visual extravagance was eminently appropriate, the movie was surprisingly willing to poke fun at its own absurdity, and I even liked the controversial hip-hop soundtrack, which I thought added to the dizzying disorientation of the party scenes and also marked the movie unmistakably as an artifact of the present moment rather than a “faithful” reconstruction of history. I’m just going to take issue with one little bit of the movie today, and that’s the end, where Gatsby dies (spoiler alert!) while waiting for a telephone call from Daisy. In the movie and the book both, Nick leaves Gatsby the morning after the accident promising to call him later, and Gatsby says “I suppose Daisy’ll call too,” and expects Nick to corroborate this hope. Then, in the movie, we see Gatsby waiting by the telephone, and having the telephone brought out to the pool, intercut with Nick moping at his office and with Daisy sitting by her own telephone, presumably thinking about calling Gatsby and taking him up on his offer of a life together. Finally the phone rings at Gatsby’s pool, and he thinks (and says) “Daisy!” as he climbs hopeful and starry-eyed up the pool ladder, only to be shot in the back and to fall backwards in stunned slow motion. After he’s dead it’s revealed that it was only Nick on the phone, worried about Gatsby.
It had been a long time since I’d last read The Great Gatsby cover to cover, but I was pretty darn sure this last gasp of hope, the ringing phone that might have been Daisy, was not in the book. And indeed it is not — at least, not exactly. Furthermore, I recognized this revisionist ending — it’s a version of the ending of Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, where Juliet wakes up from the sleep-drug before rather than after Romeo dies from the poison he’s just downed, allowing for the two of them to have an agonizing few seconds of “OH SHIIIIIIIT” eye-contact before Romeo succumbs. And that, of course, was also DiCaprio. So here we have, for the second time, Luhrmann giving DiCaprio an unauthorized minor revision to the source material in which his character sees both love and death in the same moment — the sudden, surprising promise of the one being unraveled before his eyes by the imminent certainty of the other.
In R + J, it’s certainly not in the original script, but it’s at least a choice a director could legitimately make — it involves no alteration to the spoken words. In Gatsby, it’s part of a pattern in which Luhrmann alters the text to remove ambiguities and make Gatsby more purely into a symbol of undying, incorruptible hope. Significantly, Luhrmann leaves out the punchline in what turn out to be Nick’s final words to Gatsby:
“’They’re a rotten crowd,’ I shouted across the lawn. ‘You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.’
I’ve always been glad I said that. It was the only compliment I ever gave him, [because I disapproved of him from beginning to end.]”
The excision of the remark in brackets from the film’s narration is one of many small ways in which the film gives us a Nick who is more thoroughly starry-eyed about Gatsby than is the character in the book. The invented scene with the telephone call is another, more significant revision in this vein. First of all, the book is cagier about what phone call Gatsby is even waiting for. He certainly says to Nick that he hopes Daisy will call, but when Nick tries to call Gatsby he never gets through and is told that the line is being held open “for Detroit” — whereas in the movie, we see Gatsby specifically telling his butler not to take Detroit’s call, as well as shots of Daisy thinking about calling (which the book never gives us reason to think that she does). The book doesn’t actually “show” Gatsby’s death, but here’s Nick’s imagining of Gatsby’s final moments:
“No telephone message arrived but the butler went without his sleep and waited for it until four o’clock — until long after there was anyone to give it to if it came. I have an idea that Gatsby himself didn’t believe it would come and perhaps he no longer cared. If that was true he must have felt that he had lost the old warm world, paid a high price for living too long with a single dream. He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass. A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about… like that ashen, fantastic figure gliding toward him through the amorphous trees.”
This is nearly the opposite of the scene in the movie — not only does no call come, but Nick thinks that Gatsby has finally lost hope, and rather than a final glorious moment of possibility, Gatsby’s death is imagined as almost being caused by giving up on hope. Letting go of hope has caused formerly lovely sights to become “frightening” and “grotesque,” and it is this terrible “new world” that sends forth the ghost-like form of Gatsby’s murderer in the final line here. Luhrmann, on the other hand, prefers Gatsby to remain a perfect, unspoiled symbol of hope until the end. His revision of this scene makes melodramatic tragedy out of Gatsby’s vision of love snatched away by death, and backs away from the deeper tragedy that Fitzgerald draws, of the world’s very animating soul draining out as hope dims.
I’m sure I’m not the first person to compare Gatsby to the Kierkegaardian knight of faith, who says to himself that even though his love is impossible, “I nevertheless believe that I shall get her, namely on the strength of the absurd, on the strength of the fact that for God all things are possible.” The thing about the knight of faith, though, is that he has first to accept that his love is really not possible in this world, and I don’t think Luhrmann’s Gatsby ever gets there. For one thing, Luhrmann takes away the condition that the love be thoroughly impossible by showing those scenes of Daisy with the telephone, thinking about calling. She even reaches for the phone at one point, and the camera cuts back to Gatsby’s phone ringing, and his emergence from the pool only to be shot, allowing viewers to think along with Gatsby that this is in fact Daisy calling. The slow-motion tragedy of Gatsby falling back into the pool is the moment of Romeo seeing his future with Juliet being drawn away from him by the tunnel of his own death — it’s not until afterwards that viewers get the punchline that it was just Nick on the phone. Gatsby’s hope that Daisy will call is not at all unreasonable or absurd in the movie, which takes away some of its poignancy.
To be honest, I’m not sure that Fitzgerald’s Gatsby qualifies as a true knight of faith, either. Kierkegaard explains that “childlike simplicity and innocence” can also account for impossible hope that is just naïveté rather than true faith based on the renunciation of earthly possibility. But Fitzgerald’s vision of Gatsby is nonetheless darker and more complex than Luhrmann’s, and Gatsby’s last moments are an experience of a dead, empty world left lifeless when hope has gone: “He must have looked up at an unfamiliar sky through frightening leaves and shivered as he found what a grotesque thing a rose is and how raw the sunlight was upon the scarcely created grass. A new world, material without being real, where poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air, drifted fortuitously about…”. What’s striking about these lines is the transformation of natural beauty into uncanny horror. And is Gatsby himself one of these “poor ghosts, breathing dreams like air”? If so, it’s another transformation, from a vision of himself as drawing strength and vigor from his dream to one of himself barely clinging to life through it. Another line of Kierkegaard’s comes to mind: “Through faith I don’t renounce anything, on the contrary in faith I receive everything.” It’s as though Gatsby’s faith has been giving him the world up until this moment, and now suddenly the world is taken away — even though it’s still in front of his face. It’s not just Daisy who vanishes in this tragedy, but everything — and not because of Gatsby’s death, but because he wretchedly remains alive. Fortunately, this world of shadows sends forth its avenging angel.
As a poetry teacher, I loved Melancholia. I’m always telling my students that in poetry (as in all literature), the best interpretations are the ones phrased in terms of “both/and” rather than in terms of “either/or” — and that’s exactly how Lars Von Trier’s film begs to be read. The film is divided in two parts: in the first half, Kirsten Dunst’s crippling depression threatens to sabotage her fairy-tale wedding, and in the second half, a rogue planet called “Melancholia” threatens to obliterate the earth. The absurdly obvious symbolism of a planet actually called “Melancholia” that might actually destroy the earth is so ludicrous as to demand further interpretation. “Yes,” I can hear myself saying to my imaginary poetry-and-film students, “the planet stands for depression. But are you satisfied with that? What else might it mean?”
The first thing I should point out is that the second half of the film — when the actual end of the world is nigh — feels like a relief. The first half is tense and awkward and upsetting: you sympathize with Justine (Dunst’s character), because you realize that depression is a medical condition and she can’t just think herself out of it, but you also wonder along with her relatives why she can’t just, on this one joyous day, actually be happy. When her sister Claire (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg), tells her to at least put on a smile and go through the motions for the benefit of everybody in attendance — including the groom — it sounds both reasonable and insensitive. This dilemma cuts to the heart of what is, for me, the central problem with weddings: they are supposed to be about things sincerely and deeply felt by the bride and groom, but they generally take the form of elaborate, complicated ceremonies followed by elaborate, complicated parties that seem to exist much more for the benefit of family and friends than for the actual people getting married. What if you wake up in the morning on your wedding day and you’re just not in the mood to deal with all that nonsense? What if you agreed to deal with all that nonsense because your fiancé and your family want it, but you are medically unable to enjoy it? The right thing to do in both cases seems to be to soldier on and pretend to be happy, because ruining your wedding might ruin your marriage and/or hurt or upset your family members. But then, suddenly, there is a troubling absence at the center of the ritual.
American mainstream culture seems able to tolerate “empty ritual” in just about every case EXCEPT weddings. At funerals, we recognize a wide range of “stages of grief,” and it’s perfectly okay if you feel numb or angry instead of properly melancholy. If you are a regular churchgoer, you will sometimes feel religiously moved by your Sunday services, but it’s okay if some weeks you’re there more in body than in spirit. And there are hundreds of less-religious rituals where the divorce between practice and feeling is widely recognized and accepted: my mother, for example, is planning a retirement party for a woman who, it turns out, really doesn’t want a retirement party but is probably going to get one anyway — and she will probably smile her way through it. But the idea of just smiling one’s way through one’s own wedding is unthinkable — whenever a bride in a movie is a tiny bit less than ecstatic about her wedding, it’s taken as a sign that the love in question is not “true” and Dustin Hoffman is likely to pound on the glass shouting her name at any moment, grinding the “false” ceremony to a halt. (My favorite version of this, incidentally, is when Patrick Dempsey literally busts into the chapel on a white horse at the end of the dreadful film Made of Honor. Um, spoiler alert.) And the other side of the coin is that whenever a groom is less than enthusiastic about his impending wedding, he will inevitably “grow up” just in time to undergo the ceremony with wholehearted and authentic feeling. Clearly there are gender dynamics that might be investigated here — the bride has been pushed into something she doesn’t feel, while the groom has been pushed into something he DOES feel — but I’m less interested in that problem than in the way that both these clichés are rooted in a fantasy of absolute authenticity.
One of the most troubling things about Melancholia for me was that Justine’s groom actually does leave her, right in the middle of the wedding reception, because of how unenthused and disengaged she is about the proceedings. He seems to buy into the Hoffman/Dempsey movie-logic that the rest of the film is trying to put into question, which at first just felt like a misstep on Von Trier’s part to me. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it’s actually not so inconceivable that an otherwise loving fiancé might back out of a wedding under these circumstances — because we are so conditioned by film to think of weddings as absolutely authentic experiences.
In the second half of the film, the question of ritual again resurfaces in the face of the end of the world. This is a circumstance that we have no ready rituals for, because it has never happened before, so we have to make them up. Claire proposes a glass of wine on the terrace, which Justine violently rejects. Instead, Justine gathers up Claire’s child (who would, of course, not have been able to enjoy the bourgeois ritual of the glass of wine) and runs to the forest to gather wood, which they fashion into a makeshift teepee, where Claire eventually joins them. The teepee is an invented ritual: it looks like a ritual, because of its primitivism, and it is endowed by Justine’s performative fiat with magical protective properties. This ritual, unlike the one Claire proposed, was clearly designed with the child in mind: it was meant to include and to comfort him. It also feels more authentic than either the wedding was or the glass of wine would be, because it was tailored to this specific purpose — a unique ritual for an unrepeatable event.
J.L. Austin, of course, has argued that it is precisely the fact of their historical repetition that gives utterances such as “with this ring, I thee wed” their power to make things true in the world. But since at least Wordsworth, we’ve expected “powerful feeling” to take the form of “spontaneous overflows,” which seem difficult to square with the iterative nature of most rituals. This is the kind of inauthenticity that the first half of Melancholia deals with: Justine’s desire to feel authentically leads her to wander out on the golf course in the dark instead of staying at her wedding reception and cutting the cake. But the second half of the film presents a more Durkheimian view of ritual as something that permits, structures, contains, and maybe even produces powerful feelings.
One of the answers I expect my imaginary poetry-and-film students might give if I asked them “what else does the planet stand for?” is “Justine’s wedding.” At first, the prevailing opinion of Melancholia is that it will pass by the earth at an incredibly close distance and provide an exciting (but safe) astronomical spectacle. It seems, itself, like a rite of passage: humanity will have its brush with death but will emerge unharmed. It is eagerly anticipated by Claire’s husband and son, and presumably by many other people around the world. But, like Justine’s wedding, what was supposed to be a transformative “close encounter” turns slowly and agonizingly into a catastrophic collision.
It’s the very externality of the end of the world that makes the second half of the film feel less awful than the first half: unlike Justine’s depression, the planet Melancholia is a real, observable physical object that everybody (eventually) agrees is a huge bummer. Rituals to greet it therefore stand on far less ambiguous emotional ground than Justine’s wedding did. Both Claire’s proposed glass of wine and Justine’s teepee have specific situational goals and reflect specific attitudes toward the end of the world: Claire proposes a classic bourgeois down-with-the-ship attitude, akin to the orchestra on the Titanic, while what Justine offers is something both more imaginative and more sacred. But I don’t think the film comes solidly down on the side of either formal ritual (like the wedding) or spontaneous personal ritual (like the teepee). The wedding scenes are utterly gorgeous, and I think ultimately Von Trier presents the wedding not as a straitjacket from which Justine needs to escape but as an ambitious failed project: both this glamorous, complicated event and the very idea of marital bliss are enormously difficult feats for a person with severe depression. What is easy for such a person is, of course, the end of the world: it seems like something Justine has been expecting. The planet stands for both depression and ritual, then — among other things — and Von Trier asks us to consider the disconnect between situation and emotion in both cases. If ritual is supposed to structure and produce powerful feelings, it certainly presents problems for people whose feelings don’t function in the usual way.
I am delighted to announce the publication of Impossible Loves: Essays. When my friends Heather and Steve started up Rock Paper Tiger Press last year, they proposed that their first book be a collection of essays from this blog, and I was thrilled and honored. The essays have been edited, polished, and a little de-blog-ized for publication, and I hope you’ll like them!
Here’s the copy from the back cover:
To read McNellis’s essays is to find yourself having one of those late-night conversations you always thought awaited you – those conversations where, for two hours before dawn, everything made complete sense. She’s good – very good – on ideas and thinkers, excellent on poets, and she’s miraculous on love. There is a real discursive ease of thinking in the essays, a desire to communicate the difficult joys of being human, and the reader can only hope to reciprocate.
- Dr. Timothy C. Baker, Ph.D., Author of George Mackay Brown and the Philosophy of Community
“Possible loves – are for fools – The wise have – impossible loves,” reads a journal fragment from Christian mystic Simone Weil, whose life and works are examined here amid a seemingly unlikely assortment of topics. An argument for maintaining a reverence for commitment while rejecting a traditional, sentimental embrace of outmoded family structures becomes an inquiry into Weil’s drive toward self-sacrifice. A consideration of what Weil might have had in common with libertine and frequent critic Georges Bataille develops into a discussion of Timothy Treadwell, the tragic, grizzly-bear-enamored subject of Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man. Later, delving into the tradition of reticence in American poetry is brought into relief against the author’s own experience at Burning Man, where the beat never stops.
Like a long discussion with a sharply intelligent friend, Impossible Loves moves effortlessly from topic to topic without ever losing its focus. “Nearly every paper in my academic career has the secret or not-so-secret message of ‘please, please try to love one another,’ and I think it would not be exaggerating to say that many, if not most, works of art have exactly this message as well,” McNellis writes, admitting in the same essay that “emotions are embarrassing.” Embarrassing, complex, even impossible though it may be, love is still the answer – but that doesn’t make the questions any less interesting.
You can get the book from Amazon, or you can order it through your local bookstore!
For those of you keeping track, I have now finished my Ph.D. in English and am about to stumble across the finish line of my first semester of adjuncting. But I will have a nice long six-week winter break, during which I hope to bring you a slew of new posts on the Occupy movement and on what I’ve been reading. Cheers!
The spectacle of police officers at UC Davis pepper-spraying peaceful, seated students last week has, rightly, caused an outraged uproar both within and outside the Occupy movement. Bob Ostertag, a Davis professor, has pointed out that even in prison riots, prison guards are forbidden to use pepper spray on seated prisoners because they are “not considered to be an imminent threat,” and that when prison guards plan to use pepper spray they are required to have medical personnel on the scene to treat the victims. Today, as a means of welcoming this blog back to the land of the living (after my year-long bout with finishing my dissertation), I plan to investigate the significance of the Davis police’s actions in my customarily roundabout way.
Last night, I watched Chris Marker’s La jetée, a 1962 short French dystopian film about time travel, and Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys, a 1995 film inspired by La jetée that, as you probably recall, stars Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt. Both films take place in a dystopian future where humanity has been forced to live underground due to the ruination of the earth’s surface — in La jetée, the cause is nuclear war, and in 12 Monkeys it’s a viral epidemic. In both films, the protagonist is forcefully “volunteered” by the draconian government of the survivors and is made to participate in time-travel experiments designed to help humanity out of its desperate situation. In La jetée, the protagonist is sent back in time on a series of short visits, where he befriends a woman seemingly tolerant of his tendency to literally appear and disappear unpredictably. These visits to the past are eventually revealed to be mere rehearsals for the real work at hand: once the protagonist has proven that he is mentally stable enough to handle time travel, he is sent to the distant future to beg help from the more technologically advanced society that he finds there. These future people equip him with technology to save his people, but instead of being hailed as a hero, the protagonist is sentenced to death by his draconian government now that he has served his purpose. The people from the future offer to help him escape to their time permanently, but he asks instead to be sent back to the past to live out his days with the woman he met there. The people from the future do this for him, but he is pursued by an agent from the draconian government of the present who guns him down as soon as he gets back to the past. (I am concealing the biggest plot twist from you out of the goodness of my heart.)
12 Monkeys, being a feature-length studio film from the 1990s rather than a short auteur film from the 1960s, makes many changes and complicates the plot immensely. But the change that bothered me the most is that the circumstances of the hero’s death are entirely different. Bruce Willis is killed not in the midst of trying to build a life with the woman he loves, but in the midst of trying to save the world from the very government for whom he has been forced to work. He discovers that the plague which wiped out the world was aided and abetted by the draconian government that sent him back in time in the first place, and is shot by agents of that government while trying to stop the man who will spread the disease. What bothered me so much about this change is that it actually takes the teeth out of the original film’s criticism of the power of the state. It is not very difficult to imagine a corrupt government trying to protect itself by executing people who are actively trying to bring it down. But what makes the ending of La jetée so shocking is that the protagonist is not trying to bring down the government at all — all he wants is to be left alone and allowed to pursue his own happiness. The state evidently views these desires themselves as a threat, since they are in excess of its instrumental plans for this citizen.
Viewing these films now, in what some are calling the “American Autumn” as a corollary to this year’s “Arab Spring,” I can’t help but notice the parallels to the Occupy movement and the power of the state that has recently been flexed in order to quash it. The powers that be wish they were fighting Bruce Willis, an enemy trying actively to bring them down. If they were, they’d have a much stronger case about the need to use force against the protestors. But in fact, the protestors are much more like the nameless protagonist of La jetée. The Occupy movement’s continued refusal to produce concrete demands has made it clear that — for now, at least — what the movement is about is the occupations themselves. Members of the movement talk enthusiastically about the communities built at the occupation sites: they have libraries, social services, first aid, and many other communal resources. Many people who have been living at the occupations report that the Occupy movement is one of the first communities in which they’ve truly felt at home. What they want, in other words, is to be left alone and allowed to pursue their own happiness.
This is not, however, an insular or apolitical demand — as the fascist government in La jetée realized, and as our own government may also be realizing. Unlike the communes of the 1960s, which were generally set up out in the wilderness away from population centers, the occupations are in our town squares and parks, in our faces every day. As Matt Taibbi recently explained in Rolling Stone, the movement at its heart is about “going on strike from one’s own culture”:
This is a visceral, impassioned, deep-seated rejection of the entire direction of our society, a refusal to take even one more step forward into the shallow commercial abyss of phoniness, short-term calculation, withered idealism and intellectual bankruptcy that American mass society has become.
This idea is, ultimately, much more radical than a list of concrete demands such as “increase regulation on the banks” and “remove money from politics” could ever encompass. The Occupy movement points to the fact that daring to dream of a better and more free life than the one offered by the current economico-political regime is a deep and dangerous threat to the powers that prop up that regime. This is why the government in La jetée had to kill the protagonist of that film, and it’s why the police in Zucotti Park, Oakland, Seattle, and UC Davis feel authorized to use viciously violent force on peaceful protestors. Our challenge, then, is to continue to dream — both because and in spite of the opposition.
I am currently reading Kenneth Goldsmith’s Traffic, a conceptual poetry project consisting of twenty-four hours of traffic reports from New York’s 1010 WINS (available online in its entirety here), and am stunned to find myself moved nearly to tears. Goldsmith, who claims that his transcription projects make him “the most boring writer that has ever lived,” is not thought of as a particularly moving writer, and I was certainly not expecting to react this way. But as soon as I opened the book I was floored; I was transported Proust-style right back into the kitchen of the house where I grew up in suburban New Jersey:
12:01 Well, in conjunction with the big holiday weekend, we start out with the Hudson River horror show right now. Big delays in the Holland Tunnel either way with roadwork, only one lane will be getting by. You’re talking about, at least, twenty to thirty minutes worth of traffic either way, possibly even more than that. Meanwhile the Lincoln Tunnel, not great back to Jersey but still your best option. And the GW Bridge your worst possible option. Thirty to forty minute delays, and that’s just going into town. Lower level closed, upper level all you get. Then back to New Jersey every approach is fouled-up: West Side Highway from the 150′s, the Major Deegan, the Bronx approaches and the Harlem River Drive are all a disaster, the Harlem River Drive could take you an hour, no direct access to the GW Bridge with roadwork. And right now across the East River 59th Street Bridge, you’ve gotta steer clear of that one. Midtown Tunnel, Triboro Bridge, they remain in better shape. Still very slow on the eastbound Southern State Parkway here at the area of the, uh, Meadowbrook there’s a, uh, stalled car there blocking a lane and traffic very slow.
Just about every weekday morning of my life between ages six and eighteen, I listened to traffic reports exactly like this one sputtering out of my father’s battery-powered radio. And I do mean exactly: it was 1010 WINS that he had on every morning, with traffic updates every ten minutes from Pete Tauriello, who is evidently still doing the traffic reports that Goldsmith is transcribing. (Actually, now that I think about it, there was definitely a period where my dad listened to WNEW’s Bloomberg Radio instead — another AM news channel financed, of course, by the man who would eventually become mayor of New York.) But in any case, Goldsmith’s block of text activated neurons I didn’t even remember I had, and it occurred to me that his work is rarely considered in terms of the specific times, places, and communities that it evokes. Critics tend to be concerned with what it means to copy something so banal word-for-word — to be concerned, that is, with the theoretical — and miss that perhaps what he’s trying to get at is the banal itself, rather than the philosophy that leads him to reproduce the banal.
My dad listened to that little battery-powered radio while shaving, and then would bring it with him into the kitchen to make breakfast for himself, me, and my brother. My mother didn’t really eat breakfast; she seemed to subsist on instant coffee and diet Pepsi until noon. When I was very young, I would hang around in the bathroom watching my dad shave and then follow him and the radio out to the kitchen. When I was older, I would endeavor to wake up as late as possible, but I’d still find myself downstairs in the kitchen shoveling cereal or Pop Tarts into my mouth in the cold dark morning while the radio chattered away. This was a decidedly pre-internet age; my dad listened to AM radio every morning so he could get the news efficiently, which I now suddenly recognize as an antiquated practice. I doubt he listens to that radio at all anymore, now that he has an iPhone. Stations like 1010 WINS are on a very short loop — the traffic and weather recur every ten minutes (and each time are just the slightest bit different, as conditions progress) and the material between these reports varies a bit more — sometimes you’ll get financial news, sometimes political news, etc — but even so, you don’t have to listen to the radio for more than twenty or thirty minutes before you start hearing the same stories repeated exactly. So it was always a little bit of a mystery to me why my father let the radio accompany him through his whole morning ritual — he, and I by extension especially when I was young and following him around, would be subjected to not just repeated-with-a-difference content like the traffic, but actually verbatim repeated content.
In addition to being repetitive, a lot of the news on the radio didn’t really affect my dad very much, and it certainly didn’t affect me. My parents had some investments, so I guess the financial news was sort of important, and it’s also how I learned about the stock market myself. (“Dad, what’s a ‘bear market’?”) The traffic reports that came on every ten minutes meant nothing to anybody in my family, since both of my parents had “commutes” that were less than ten minutes long. But listening to the traffic reports every morning taught me a fair amount about local geography — the BQE, the Major Deegan, the Verrazano — these names were burned into my brain before they even really meant anything, and years later when I learned to drive and started navigating the highways myself, I found myself having little a-ha moments every time I crossed a bridge in real life that I had previously only known from Pete Tauriello’s traffic reports.
Now that I think about it, the reason the traffic reports are so burned into my brain is that the one thing I personally was always interested in was the weather report, and these radio stations of course do “traffic and weather together” — so when you started to hear the traffic report, you’d hush everybody up so you could catch the weather. The thing about these news stations is that they operate at a blinding pace — everybody is always speaking very quickly so they can cram as much information as possible into their minute-long slot. The rhythm and diction of the traffic reports that Goldsmith transcribes are at least as evocative for me as the names of the tunnels and bridges. Some phrases the announcer seemed to have by rote — “stalled car blocking a lane,” “only one lane getting by” — these we’d hear several times a morning. “Jackknifed tractor-trailer” was one we’d hear a lot, and I remember being somewhat enamored of the sound of the words as well as slightly alarmed by its frequency given what an enormous disaster a jackknifed tractor trailer in fact is. Sentences in this barrage of information tend to be clipped and lack verbs: “Meanwhile the Lincoln Tunnel, not great back to Jersey but still your best option. And the GW Bridge your worst possible option. Thirty to forty minute delays, and that’s just going into town.” And to make matters worse, the announcers would jump all over the map: “then back to New Jersey every approach is fouled-up.” I remember trying to hold it all in my head, to picture the places they were talking about, and I always found that it was too difficult to follow. On the rare occasions that we did need the traffic report’s wisdom, we found that we’d have to strain to pick out the relevant information from this rapid barrage. But colorful touches like “the Hudson River horror show” remind you that there’s a person and a personality on the other end of this deluge of information that is so particularly stylized. I hadn’t thought about Pete Tauriello in years — in fact, I never really thought about him; I just heard his name a lot — but when Marjorie Perloff mentioned him in her chapter on Traffic in her new book, Unoriginal Genius, I gasped aloud as the “Pete Tauriello” neurons in my brain started firing again more than ten years later.
In retrospect, I think my dad probably just liked the chatter. The radio made us all feel connected to the outside world, whether or not we were paying very close attention to it. Now, of course, we have the internet to fill our lives with chatter and connection — but I think one of the things we can learn from Goldsmith’s Traffic is that not all forms of chatter are alike. Ten years from now, will radio announcers still be clipping their diction and dropping their verbs to fit all the traffic into their one-minute report? Or will news radio wither and die from the internet’s competition? Even if it doesn’t entirely vanish, I’d wager that news radio will reach ever smaller — poorer and older — segments of the population, and that it will no longer be a mainstay of middle-class suburban houses like my parents’.
I think, then, that part of what Goldsmith is getting at in his transcription projects is the power of records of utterly banal minutia to evoke the particular places and times from which they emerge. I doubt that Traffic would have had so powerful an effect on me if I hadn’t moved across the country to southern California, where names like “the BQE” make me feel nostalgic and the very idea of straining to hear the weather report in order to choose appropriate clothing is somewhat quaint. Neither the radio nor even weather itself is much a part of my life these days. But I experience these traffic reports as microcosms of a life I once lived, reflected through something I never particularly paid attention to while I was living it. Traffic reports — and weather reports, and newspapers, subjects of some of Goldsmith’s other transcription projects — are part of the texture of the everyday; they are where we live without noticing that we live there.
I am a scholar of, teacher of, student of, and writer of poetry. This constellation of identities means that when I pick up a new book of poetry, I turn into Robert fucking Langdon from the fucking Da Vinci Code: I look for correspondences, connections, patterns, “Symbology,” so that I can solve the book’s mystery and come up with a thesis clever enough to bring down the Catholic church. Mike Young’s We Are All Good If They Try Hard Enough stumped me for a long time. There are no correspondences, there is no Symbology, there is just stuff and stuff and more stuff:
All the new bewilderment is about hay fever tablets.
In this it resembles the blind men running from the
elephant. In this it resembles nude appliance repair.
We’re pulled aside and told we’re loved, but listen:
the mustard gas has got to go. If I keep feeling this way
I will have to use a lot of emoticons.
The emoticons line is brilliant, but otherwise this passage is, well, kind of bewildering. The first line is intriguing and reads almost like a word-substitution game, but I can’t even imagine what it would mean to try to explain the “resemblances” noted in the second and third lines. I can make sense of the mustard gas as hyperbole, an apocalyptic version of “I love you, but lose the mustache,” but its relation to the earlier lines is utterly opaque.
My inner Robert Langdon was tearing his hair out until I told him to shut up already. This book is jam-packed with delightful moments, and it’s right and good and interesting that they’re moments instead of coy pieces of a picture-puzzle. “Dancing is just putting yourself on inside out.” “Oh, this is no cello analogy // you weepy motherfucker.” “In 1954, the last documented case of / ‘real people’ buried a milkshake recipe / and two coupons for used boxing gloves / outside Sparks, Nevada.” This book is a riot of noise and joy and weirdness, and reminds us that life is full of interesting things.
But then suddenly, three-fourths of the way of through the book, my inner Langdon found the Cryptex. In case you’ve forgotten or repressed this movie (which I swear I saw only in the dollar theater and only because it was such a cultural phenomenon), allow me to remind you that the Cryptex was the little cylinder with symbols on it that operated like a bicycle-lock and opened up to contain some kind of scroll that helped Tom Hanks solve all the mysteries. My Cryptex to Young’s book is a prose poem called “Now You Try,” and it begins like this:
Your roommate has something to tell you about the sociology of chip brands. Driving has something to tell you about shivering. Your porch has something to tell you about your ex-girlfriend. Evolution has something to tell you about acne. Bea Arthur has something to tell you about drugs. Beaches have something to tell you about community. Your mom has something to tell you, sometimes. The post office has something to tell you about the rest of your life.
It goes on for quite awhile, and it gets weirder:
If you are lying in bed and there is a maple bonbon on your nightstand a little out of reach, how much and what kind of effort you employ through your body toward that bonbon has something to tell you about death. 4AM has something to tell you, but it’s outside. The press has something to tell you they saw, but they always wait until it’s gone. Watermelons have something smart to tell you. Breakfast has something to tell you about your friends. The Decemberists have something to tell you about Russian history — yeah, you and everybody else, dude.
And so on and so on. And suddenly it all seemed clear: it’s not just that this is a book full of weird stuff, it’s that it’s a book full of weird stuff that means stuff. Everything has something to tell you if you know how to listen, and this, I think, is part of what Young is trying to tell us. The title of this poem, “Now You Try,” not only references the title of the volume (correspondences! Symbology!), but it invites the reader into this enterprise. The “formula” of this poem becomes rapidly clear, and the reader is asked to make up similar statements of her own, to look around and figure out which objects are trying to speak.
One thing that’s striking about this volume is that over half the poems are dedicated to specific people. In those poems and elsewhere, moments of real tenderness shine through: “This feeling is called kiss me. This feeling is called hi.” “The word okay is like skydiving. / If I say swingsets, will you make it rain?” “Give me something to give into. / It will be weird. It will be so weird.” These flashes of quirky sincerity put me in mind of Frank O’Hara, whose name I actually scribbled in the margins when I read these lines: “My moments of inward congratulation are / offset by meals alone in pants I really like.” If O’Hara is a patron saint of this volume, it is because he and Young both seem to be giving you a sidelong glance, revealing the marvels of the everyday while checking to make sure that nobody is taking themselves too seriously.
So if you like weirdness — if you like Craigslist, Leonard Cohen, and stray flamingos — if you hate the damn Da Vinci Code — you owe it to yourself to pick up We Are All Good If They Try Hard Enough and to ready yourself for Mike Young’s forthcoming fiction collection, Look! Look! Feathers.
First of all, this is old news to most of you who know me personally, but all of you in blog-land might be interested to know that I’ve got an article published on H.D.’s Trilogy, her WWII epic poem, and her seances in which she talked to dead RAF pilots. It’s in the Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory’s most recent issue, and it’s called “‘An Unusual Way to Think’: Trilogy‘s Oracular Poetics.” You can download & read the PDF for free. Yay for the information age!
If you’ve been starved for my friendlier, less academic prose (and what follows below is not enough to slake your thirst), you can also check out the poetry reviews that I recently did for Noö Journal — mine are the first two pieces in the magazine, actually, linked there on the upper right.
Okay, on with the show. In what follows, as the title of this post promises, I will talk about Gertrude Stein for awhile and then I will make some connections to the series finale of Lost, because I am a dork. I will put that section behind the fold, for the spoiler-conscious, and I will endeavor to make the first part of the post worthwhile in and of itself. I will also try to make the section on Lost as general and thematic as possible, so that you can read it and get something out of it even if you haven’t watched the series.
Because I am an immensely unwise person, I have decided that my dissertation requires me to read Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans, a 925-page-long reputedly incoherent tome which is actually blurbed with the following line from the New Yorker: “The first stunningly original disaster of modernism.” But to my great surprise, I am enjoying the hell out of it. Here is part of the section with which I am currently madly in love. I quote at some length so you can get the effect of her prose, but please do try to read this attentively, because the nuances are important:
Every one is always repeating the whole of them. Always, one having loving repeating to getting completed understanding must have in them an open feeling, a sense for all the slightest variations in repeating, must never lose themselves so in the solid steadiness of all repeating that they do not hear the slightest variation. If they get deadened by the steady pounding of repeating they will not learn from each one even though each one always is repeating the whole of them they will not learn the completed history of them, they will not know the being really in them.
As I was saying every one always is repeating the whole of them. As I was saying sometimes it takes many years of listening, seeing, living, feeling, loving the repeating there is in some before one comes to a completed understanding. This is now a description, of such a way of hearing, seeing, feeling, living, loving, repetition.
Mostly everyone loves some one’s repeating. Mostly everyone, then, comes to know then the being of some one by loving the repeating in them, the repeating coming out of them. There are some who love everybody’s repeating, this is now a description of such loving in one.
Mostly everyone loves some one’s repeating. Everyone always is repeating the whole of them. This is now a history of getting completed understanding by loving repeating in every one the repeating that always is coming out of them as a complete history of them. This is now a description of learning to listen to all repeating that every one is always making of the whole of them.
A large part of The Making of Americans is essentially a typology of characters — Stein attempts to describe different “types” of people who live in America. This concept is what she is introducing at the end of this passage; the narrator is someone “who love[s] everybody’s repeating,” and has listened sufficiently to everybody so as to piece together a “complete history” of all of them.
But let’s back up. What does it mean to say that “every one is always repeating the whole of them”? First of all, there’s the sense of verbal “repetition,” which of course this text itself enacts. We all have favorite stories about ourselves to tell, favorite topics to discuss, frequent refrains in our daily accounts of ourselves. I presently have a semi-regular non-appointment with a friend of mine for what generally turn out to be quite long conversations about our presents and pasts. He is a relatively new acquaintance, which means I get to trot out some of my “greatest hits,” and have thus had the opportunity to examine this particular(ly narcissistic) pleasure. It’s the pleasure of a well-told story as much as of a well-lived life; I admire myself for both the events and their recounting equally. Because of course for me, these stories are already repetitions, benefiting from earlier tellings. But I worry that some of these stories have stopped being “authentic” because they have been told so many times, and that I might not be giving my interlocutor as much attention as he deserves by launching into these rhapsodies as often as I do. (Speaking of favorite themes, see this post for an earlier meditation of mine on personal anecdotes and the authenticity thereof.) But Stein loves repetition. She would tell me, I think, that repetition makes my stories more authentic, in the sense that as I refine them, they become more perfect expressions of myself. Not only do they become better vehicles for conveying whatever truth about myself inheres in stories about — for example — my summer jobs in high school, but they become better entertainment for my interlocutor, and I think this latter function should not be overlooked.
So there is verbal repetition — but there is also, like, life repetition. In a mundane sense, we all have schedules. We all have approximately set times when we wake up and when we go to sleep, most of us have some kind of official work schedule we have to abide by, and many of us have more or less ritualized ways that we use our spare time: we go to the same couple of lunch places, we unwind at the end of the day with a beer and The Daily Show, whatever. In a more profound sense, most of our lives are shaped by broader patterns of repetition: the same damn relationship hang-ups playing out again and again, the same nonsense day in and day out from your mother that you thought you both would have outgrown by now, etc. Freud’s concept of Nachträglichkeit is also about repetition — according to this theory, certain traumatic events leave us numb because we are unable to process them, but then later (often much later) in life, a seemingly unrelated stimulus can set off an emotional reaction out of all proportion with the stiumulus itself, because this reaction is the result of much-belated emotions connected to the original traumatic event.
What I like about Stein’s formulation (“every one is always repeating the whole of them”) is that it levels all these senses of repetition, from the echoing effect of profound emotional trauma to your verbal tics and your morning coffee ritual, and says that in all of these repetitions you are repeating “the whole of [you].” It reminds me of fractals, geometric drawings made up of pieces that are each smaller-sized copies of the whole. We all, I think, worry about the degree to which our lives our repetitive. Most of us have escape fantasies, whether or not we have any actual desire to act on them. Maybe I read too much Jack Kerouac as a teenager, but I suspect I am not the only person who sometimes fancies that she could be living a better and freer and more authentic life if she could just summon the courage to quit her job and hit the open road. What Stein does here is show us that repetition is authenticity — we can’t escape it even if we try. If we didn’t have desires that lead us to the same perfectly-calibrated cup of coffee every morning, or habitual turns of phrase that are uniquely our own, then who would we be?
The counterpart to this is the theory of love that Stein espouses here: “Mostly everyone loves some one’s repeating.” This is, by necessity, a theory of long-term love. She reminds us that “sometimes it takes many years of listening, seeing, living, feeling, loving the repeating there is in some before one comes to a completed understanding.” If repetition is authenticity, then repetition demands attention — not boredom or disengagement, which might be our more automatic responses. Importantly, Stein recognizes that the repetition in our lives is never exact repetition, though it may look that way to outsiders. Love, for Stein, becomes paying attention to the nuances of somebody’s repetitions. Change does not always happen drastically — in fact, most change in our lives probably occurs at a gradual pace, as a matter of drift in a series of repetitions rather than as a radical break. And what is sharing your life with someone if not the process of gradually letting your repetitions overlap and shape one another?
This is the part where I’m going to start talking about the television show Lost. If you’ve been watching the show but haven’t seen the finale yet, you should probably stop reading. If you’ve never seen it and/or have only vague plans to watch it someday, you can go ahead and continue, because I will not reveal any answers to any mysteries; I’m just going to describe the kind of emotional closure that the show gives us while avoiding specifics as much as possible.
Huge swaths of the American population have always been into sincerity: Christians. Truckers. Moms. Emo kids. But since the early 20th century, anybody who’s identified as “cool” — with the exception of emo kids and arguably of hippies — has thrived on ironic distance. But as anybody who’s been tracking hipster culture lately knows, we are currently going down a rabbit hole in which irony is trying so hard that it’s turning into sincerity before our very eyes. Case in point: Daniel Bailey’s The Drunk Sonnets, recently out from Magic Helicopter Press, a triumph of postironic poetry and a harbinger, perhaps, of the world to come.
Now, the hipster ironists of the poetry world are the Flarfists, whose blog features a giant unicorn and the slogan “mainstream poetry for a mainstream world.” But of course, their poetry is anything but mainstream — it is assembled from the detritus of the internet as targeted through google searches, and it is nothing if not hostile to interpretation. Flarf poetry is extremely resistant to sincerity, and even to communication. It’s a parody of poetry, and a parody of the internet, and if sentiment does creep into Flarf poems it’s with invisible quotation marks around it, as in this excerpt from “Spanksgiving,” recently reposted for the holiday:
Now Ride! By now a lot of people are showing
up for their holiday weekend in the desert. A large
contingent at the retail store for “Leather Happy Hour.”
Spank hard…spank safe!
The only Turkeys I’ll be seeing this Spanksgiving are my dear
friends Brook, Katie and Baby Richy. I was very happy
to help them mark this moment in their family’s growth.
Spank hard…spank safe!
We got lots more smut in store for you all month long!
(And on a school night, nonetheless!) I had to kill
them to make them happy or some shit.
The middle stanza drips of sincerity and is probably a real excerpt from somebody’s blog except for the poet’s substitution of “Spanksgiving.” But the “spank hard… spank safe!” refrain and the bondage/smut references in the adjacent stanzas make it clear that we are supposed to smirk at the sentiment. The “mainstream poetry” Flarf slogan may be meant to indicate that the vapid and absurd internet material that the Flarfists draw from IS the mainstream now, and if their poems end up being more scatalogical and incoherent than most “mainstream” people can deal with, then maybe those people should learn to face up to the reality of their own culture. But slapping “mainstream poetry for a mainstream world” on your avant-garde poetry website might just as easily be read as hipster posturing — the equivalent of wearing a Journey T-shirt to an Animal Collective concert and challenging people to wonder about whether you really listen to Journey and whether you would be more cool or less cool if you did.
On the surface of it, Daniel Bailey’s The Drunk Sonnets (and the multi-author blog on which they were first posted), have a lot in common with Flarf. All Drunk poems, both in the book and on the blog, are written in all capital letters — the international internet language of idiocy and/or assholery. Like Flarf poems, Drunk poems feature inanity, banality, and frequent topic shifts and interruptions. But unlike Flarf poems, there is real emotional content in Drunk poems. Bailey’s book consists of real live sonnets — most of them are Italian sonnets, with an octave and a sestet and a turn and everything — describing the speaker’s alcohol-drenched misery following a breakup. Here’s one of my favorites:
IF ANYONE KNOWS WHAT IS GOING ON EVER THEN HEY
I AM HERE IT WOULD BE NICE TO TALK SOMETIME
INFOMERCIALS HAVE STARTED AND I KIND OF WANT TO DIE
I’M PRETTY SURE THIS ONE IS ACTUALLY FOR A MORGUE
OK SO ACTUALLY IT’S FOR THE BIBLE OR SOMETHING
SO IT’S A COMMERCIAL FOR TRYING TO BE HAPPY OR SOMETHING
BUT I AM NOT HAPPY TONIGHT NO I AM NOT JUST HERE
IF HAPPINESS EVER WORKED THEN HOW — I DON’T KNOW
HAPPINESS IS A LIZARD IN THE SUNLIGHT GETTING WARM
AND THEN IN THE NIGHT BENEATH A ROCK EATING FLIES
AND SWALLOWING THE MEAT OF THE TRASH OF THE DIRT
AH, SO TONIGHT IS A LITTLE DRUNK AND OK OK OK
THAT IS GOOD SO LET ME BE — THERE IS NO LOVE TONIGHT
GOD IS LIKE BONO — SOME DICKWAD NO ONE WILL EVER MEET OR LIKE
The poem begins with a sort of open-ended plea that reflects the internet age in its very vagueness. Most Facebook and Twitter updates are not addressed to anyone in particular; they are just thrown out into the abyss and we hope that some of our friends will respond. This diminishes our responsibility for our own feelings as well as potentially diminishing the intensity of our relationships; instead of calling a friend to vent about a problem, you can just post a vague allusion to it on your Facebook and receive a bunch of vague support from whatever acquaintances happen to have logged on in time to see your post. In this poem, there is real pathos in this vagueness : “IF ANYONE KNOWS WHAT IS GOING ON EVER THEN HEY / I AM HERE IT WOULD BE NICE TO TALK SOMETIME.” This is a person who is lost and lonely. In the last line of the first stanza, the speaker appears to be able to laugh a little at his own misery — “I’M PRETTY SURE THIS ONE IS ACTUALLY FOR A MORGUE” — but in the next stanza his joking façade cracks, and he says straight out that he’s unhappy.
Then suddenly, in the first stanza of the sestet, there is a total change of tone from the banal to the imaginative. The lizard seems to be a figure for the banal — feeding, as it does, on the “meat of the trash of the dirt” — but it is at least a figure in a poem that until now has been aggressively anti-poetic. I don’t think it’s exactly a metaphor; I don’t think the speaker is saying that happiness is LIKE a lizard, but rather that only simple things like lizards are happy. It’s the same construction as “happiness is a warm gun,” and I think the use of “warm” to describe the lizard might not be an accident. After this little reverie, the speaker realizes he is drunk, makes temporary peace with his loneliness, and curses God. The tone switches back to banal rambling, but the God = Bono simile betrays a wry poetic sensibility that few drunks (who aren’t poets to begin with) are capable of.
What gets me so excited about Drunk poetry as written by Bailey and friends is that it breaks down the pervasive assumption that experimental form is incompatible with emotional content. That this assumption exists baffles me, since Joyce’s Ulysses stands as an enormous and wildly famous testament to the contrary, but I have observed it in many (though not all) of my students, my colleagues, and the scholars in my field. Most importantly, I have observed it in the experimental poets of today, many of whom seem content to be tricksters and treat “feelings” as counterrevolutionary.
That’s not to say that Bailey’s sincere moments are always delightful, however. The breakup theme gets tedious (and maybe that’s intentional?), and the poetry is frequently at its wretched worst when he is at his most sincere: “I LICKED THE SPOONS THAT WE HAD SCOOPED INTO OUR HEARTS / AND I GAVE YOU TWO SCOOPS EVERY TIME — I WASN’T CHEAP.” I mean, puke. Puuuuuke. But this is an interesting post-ironic moment. Is it a joke? When we puke at these lines, are we puking with him or on him? What about these lines?
I COULD PRACTICALLY RIP MYSELF APART
AND WHAT WOULD I EVEN FIND BUT YOUR LOVE
THAT I’VE SAVED UP LIKE CRUMBS
The hipster in me recoils at the naked sentiment — last night I marked these in my book as “puke” lines, but today they look kinda nice. And this oscillation, this indeterminacy, is precisely what is going to characterize the post-ironic age. I am not proposing that a return to Byronic levels of sincerity is imminent or even advisable, but that as we feel our way back from posturing in silly haircuts to occasionally being able to say what we mean, we are going to encounter a lot of weird situations that look a lot like Bailey’s poems. The trouble with foreclosing on the possibility of sincerity — as Flarf more or less does — is that you cut off a whole lot of interpretative possibilities. But if you do occasionally say something “real,” you open up the downright dangerous possibility that anything in your poem might be “real.”
It’s not an accident, though, that Bailey & friends have adopted drunkenness as their aesthetic banner. The speech of drunk people is frequently a fascinating blend of comedy and sincerity, and it moves in and out of self-awareness pretty fluidly. One minute your drunk friend will be saying something absurd, the next minute he’ll be telling you that you are truly one of his best and most excellent friends, and in another minute he’ll be laughing at himself and telling you how drunk he is and not to listen to anything he says. The fact that Bailey’s speaker is drunk allows him to be sincere with relatively little risk; we know that our drunk friends’ resolutions generally come from genuine feelings, but at the same time we’ve learned to take them with a grain of salt.
So it appears that the Drunk poets get to have their cake and eat it too, which leaves us with just one burning question: are they really drunk, or are they writing in “drunkface”? Fred Astaire claimed in his autobiography that he knocked back two shots of bourbon before the first take of the famous drunk dancing scene from the 1942 musical Holiday Inn, and one before each successive take — and they got it on the seventh take. This scene alone is worth the price of admission; Astaire achieves a balance of grace and sloppiness that could perhaps have only been executed by a legitimately drunk professional dancer. But what about Zui Quan, the form of Chinese martial arts known as “Drunken Boxing” popularized by Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master films? Though Jackie Chan’s character is portrayed as actually drunk, real Zui Quan practitioners say that you need to be sober in order to have the balance and coordination necessary to perform the staggering, fluid motions that are merely meant to imitate drunkenness.
Here’s where I go off the conspiracy-theory deep end: Sam Pink, in one of the blurbs on the back of the book (which by the way are the two greatest blurbs I have ever read in my life), refers to “the midwest sadness embedded as deeply in [Bailey] as his Kool-Aid moustache,” and indeed, Bailey’s author bio claims that he is from Muncie, Indiana. You know who else is from Muncie? Tim Robbins’ character in The Hudsucker Proxy, a naïve midwesterner who accidentally finds himself in charge of a big-city corporation. When the femme fatale wants to gain his trust she claims to be from Muncie too, which involves an elaborate lie including singing the Muncie High fight song along with Robbins by following him a half-beat behind and being able to guess about the predicable rhymes. When her betrayal of Robbins is eventually revealed, he’s so naïve that all he can say is “I can’t believe I was betrayed by you….. a Muncie girl!”. So maybe — just maybe — Bailey’s alleged Muncie origin is a winking reference to an absolute sincerity that is, itself, ironized in the Coen Brothers’ film.
So is he really from Muncie? Is he really drunk? Does he sincerely want you to lick the spoon he has scooped into his heart? I don’t know, but I’m having fun trying to figure it out.
If my halfassed ethical critique was not enough for you, and you need more Greif-hating in your life, I highly recommend this post by Zunguzungu, passed along to me by my friend Max. Zunguzungu takes Greif to task for, among other things, historical inaccuracy, ethnocentrism, ignorance of evolutionary biology, insensitivity to the gay marriage movement, and failure to make a sound argument.
If you are pressed for time and just want some bite-sized snark, check this out: “The Shadow Editors: Reading Mark Greif’s N+1 Piece in Real Time.” Here is possibly the best moment:
Tom Scocca: God [wrings hands], I sometimes wish I were gay, so pure pleasure and love wouldn’t be bound up in all this…this hegemonic, patriarchal structure of authority that man-woman relations are always suffocated by. [Clasps hands, stares at place wall meets ceiling.] You know? To just love a person for love’s sake. Gay people, they’ve been cast out by society, but that’s, that’s like being cast out of PRISON, in some ways, really, isn’t it?
I write to you today in response to an article that some of my friends have been pointing to urgently but not really talking about: On Repressive Sentimentalism, by Mark Greif. The piece is worth reading in its entirety if you have the time, but here’s the Cliff’s Notes version: Greif proposes that progressive politics has allowed itself to be straightjacketed by the rhetoric of the religious right, defending gay rights in terms only of marriage and feminism in terms only of abortion. The particular problem he sees is that progressives seem to unquestioningly accept the ways that the right characterizes these as sentimental issues: marriage is a happily-ever-after union with your destined partner, and abortions are tragic. How else might we view these issues? Greif proposes that the promise of the gay rights movement is not simply equal marriage rights for all, but the possibility that the institution of marriage itself could be radically questioned. The nuclear family once served a number of socioeconomic functions that it no longer does, which has has left marriage with only an emotional function, and one that it does not even fulfill very well. This part of the argument is worth quoting at some length:
[The nuclear family] is no longer necessary as the site of the pre-capitalist workshop. It is no longer the only structure for child-rearing, as children now come out of so many differently constituted families. The family no longer houses the old folks of several generations. It’s no longer even the privileged secular space for intimate confession and support, as this modern necessity is increasingly outsourced, well down the class ladder, to therapists, gurus, and members of all the helping professions. When marriage has as its main purpose a total and unique defense against loneliness and isolation and anomie, then it’s been saddled with a function too grand and dishonest for it ever to meet; no wonder it will seem imperfect, disappointing, not yet the right, ﬁnal marriage.
The appeal to anomie simply ignores, post-1960s, the emotional capacities we’ve gained. We now resist atomization and anomie with the wide range of unusually warm, non-exclusive and simultaneous friendships, often verging on erotism but not compelled to it, both across and within the sexes, and among straights and gays—this extraordinary birthright the ’60s gave to all those of us born, say, after 1969. The range is better than any narrowing. The multiplicity of friendships trumps the marriage structure. Yet these relations really survive, and thrive, only until marriage begins to clear its throat, and they are jeopardized by the cowardly constraints of couplehood. Marriage is lye poured upon the petri dish of the new relations of erotic sociality.
For better and worse (and for richer and for poorer), marriage is also almost inevitably intolerable to any post-’60s individual who counts the accumulation of strong experience and passionate feeling as the sine qua non of meaningful existence.
I will have some things to say about this in a minute, but for now I will continue with the paraphrase. Marriage, sentimentalized as a forever-bond, prevents people from recognizing the other interesting ways that they could be connecting with people. The abortion debate is similarly restricted by sentimentalization; Greif argues that progressives should stop calling abortion “sad but necessary” and start calling it “right and good” — the issue, he says, should be freedom rather than choice: free and legal abortion is required for women to have the most basic equality with men in terms of planning their lives. The connection between the two issues — marriage and abortion — is, of course, sex. Both debates come down to a squeamishness on the part of the religious right about the idea of sex without consequences, which Greif defends as not just fun and fulfilling, but deeply important to developing a more inclusive and tolerant morality:
You have to defend sex because we still have no better model than the actual, concrete sexual relation for a deep intuitive process opposed to domination. We have no better model for a bodily process that, fundamentally, is free and universal. It does not produce (there is no experiential remainder but pleasure) nor consume. It is cooperative (within the relation of the lovers) and, in that relation, seems to forbid competition. It makes you love people, and accept the look and difference of their bodies. [...] Sexual cooperation is the other side of our basic human nature, and matches and disarms economic competition. Conservatives look to the chimpanzees, utopians to bonobos. One viewpoint prefers that side of our evolutionary ancestry that punches and rapes; the other that side, of equal propinquity, that rubs genitals and makes out.
I think these are all valuable and interesting ideas, which is why I’m bringing them to your attention, but something about this article didn’t sit quite right with me, and after some thought I realized it was this: Fundamental to Greif’s argument is a valuing of freedom with regard to our interpersonal relationships — marriage is bad because it restricts that freedom, limiting our ability to get to know and love our neighbors, and outlawing abortion is bad because it prevents women from being able to determine the course of their lives. But what happens when you do decide to bring a child into your life, whether by giving birth or by adoption? You commit to loving a person, sight unseen, who may not turn out to even like you very much. You commit enormous amounts of financial and emotional resources to a person who may walk out the door on her eighteenth birthday and never speak to you again. Even if your relationship with your child doesn’t fail quite that dramatically, it’s almost certain that the relationship will not turn out exactly as you imagined — and yet you are still ethically obligated to that relationship at least until your child reaches adulthood. My point here is that it is actually impossible to conduct all of our relationships as though we had no long-term obligations to them. Greif mentions “unorthodox childrearing and communal parenthood” in his list of reforms that utopians have historically fought for, but I think that solution misses the point in two ways. First, it is extremely difficult to manage both legally and socially in today’s world, though it might be viable as a longterm progressive goal. Second, if you were going to make something like communal parenthood work, and have it be more like a family than like an institution, it would have to involve serious commitments to the parenting enterprise on the part of at least one if not several members of the commune — which gets us right back to my point that the freedom to terminate your affective ties at will runs up against a limit case when you are talking about a parent’s affective ties to a child.
The fact that we have a profound — I hesitate to use the world “absolute” — obligation to our children is, I think, an argument for the importance of other kinds of interpersonal commitments, too. I agree wholeheartedly with Greif that the world would be a better place if the family unit were not so tyrannically policed, if family configurations other than man-woman-child were recognized and accepted, but I also think that without commitment there can be no family. (This does not, however, have to mean exclusive romantic commitment.) It’s nice to imagine a commitment-free world where you might be able to wake up each morning and freely choose whether to continue living with and loving your family members, but I think Greif is overstating the amount of choice we could theoretically have in the matter. In “Whom to Give to (Knowing Not to Know),” Jacques Derrida points out that choices like this are extremely difficult if we take them seriously: “As soon as I enter into a relation with the other, with the gaze, look, request, love, command, or call of the other I know I can respond only by sacrificing ethics, that is, by sacrificing whatever obliges me also to respond, in the same way, in the same instant, to all the others.” He gives the somewhat trivial but still troubling example of his cat: why should I feed my cat and ignore all the stray cats in the world? In terms of the family, one might ask: why should I feed this child and not all the children starving in Africa? Why should I devote my time and energy to this partner when there are so many other worthy partners in the world?
A family is, frankly, convenient to most people precisely because it provides us with a fairly easy answer to the terrifying ethical question posed by our limited time and resources and shouted at us by George Thorogood: “Who do you love?”. And I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. Even if we bracketed the question of child-rearing, I don’t think a world without any concept of family is particularly desirable.
That said, I think there are some worthwhile lessons to be learned from Greif’s vision of a sexually-liberated utopia even if you refuse to throw the baby of commitment out with the bathwater of traditional marriage. For one thing, I think he’s right that most people do themselves a disservice if they allow a single romantic relationship to stifle all their other connections to people. I also think he’s right that it would be a mistake to let any romantic relationship go unevaluated — but commitment to a romantic relationship “for better or for worse” doesn’t have to mean not trying to make it better, or not leaving when it’s unfixably worse. The trick is to not allow yourself to slide into complacency, and Greif is not wrong to characterize marriage as an institution that seems almost designed to encourage it — but that doesn’t mean complacency is inevitable.
I turn, as I often do, to Simone Weil. One fragment in her notebooks goes like this: “Possible loves — are for fools — the wise have — impossible loves.” Weil has a gift for making counterintuitive statements that are strangely compelling, forcing you to change your habits of thinking, and this line is no exception. Two kinds of impossible loves come to mind first: those that are prevented by circumstances, and those that are unrequited. Weil is perhaps trying to tell us that these unrealizable loves are valuable because they ask us to make a change, to either break free from those repressive circumstances or to try to improve ourselves to be worthy of our beloved. Possible loves require no such change, and therefore do not help us grow. (This, I think, is similar to Greif’s position.) But there is a third kind of “impossible love” that Weil might be referring to: not the love that is denied us, but the love that we — impossibly — receive. If you can remember that everyone who loves you is a miracle, and if you work every day towards deserving that love, then I don’t think it matters whether you love fifty people or just one person over the course of your lifetime. Love can always change you for the better if you let it.