This was originally posted on Yum Yum Union.
“There are people who think contraception is immoral because the object of copulation is procreation. In a similar way there are people who think the only reason to read a book is to write a book; people should call up books from the dust and the dark and write thousands of words to be sent down to the dust and the dark which can be called up so that other people can send further thousands of words to join them in the dust and the dark. Sometimes a book can be called from the dust and the dark to produce a book which can be bought in shops, and perhaps it is interesting, but the people who buy it and read it because it is interesting are not serious people, if they were serious they would not care about the interest they would be writing thousands of words to consign to the dust and the dark. There are people who think death a fate worse than boredom.”
– The Last Samurai, Helen Dewitt.
“You wanted good schools and friends with pools,
you’re not a contra.
You wanted rock ‘n roll, complete control.
Well, I don’t know.
I think you’re a contra.
I think that you lie.
Don’t call me a contra!
‘Til you’ve tried.”
– ‘I Think Ur A Contra,’ Vampire Weekend.
“…the English have a class-consciousness and resentment that,
in America, we stifle with our inherent belief that we are all rich,
or at least, are about to be.”
– ‘Downton Abbey and Sympathy for the Rich,’ Choire Sicha.
“Meek young men grow up in libraries, believing it their duty to accept the views which Cicero, which Locke, which Bacon, have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke, and Bacon were only young men in libraries, when they wrote these books. Hence, instead of Man Thinking, we have the book-worm.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
“Someone had to listen to all that talk.”
– Page, Tamora Pierce.
“Any wine will get you high.
Judge like a king, and choose the purest,
the ones unadulterated with fear,
or some urgency about “what’s needed.”
Drink the wine that moves you
as a camel moves when it’s been untied,
and is just ambling about.”
– ‘The Many Wines,’ Rumi.
“Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.”
– Oscar Wilde
Cards on the table? This is about low-culture, reblogging, and soul pollution, but I don’t know how to write this without giving you every step of the thought process. (The above quotes represent and pithily express these undercurrents.) As such, it has several parts. Please consider each part atomically, and then note how they tie together at the close. It will be a little like watching rain on car windows. With luck, all the droplets will converge.
I think I once read in the Rolling Stone that Charlie Sheen represents the American dream at its double-edged best: when we’re at our worst, we say we’re on top of the world; that we love the cocky liar, the guy with bleeding gums going ‘Is that all you got?’ to the two-ton thug slinging haymakers his way; we love the Black Eye Pea mythos. Okay, the article didn’t note that latest item, but it did tag Charlie Sheen as a metaphorical taproot in the American consciousness in his winning way.
After a work shift not necessarily long in hours, but tall in drudge, I pulled into my garage and blasted music in my car for maybe twenty minutes, and experienced miraculous uplift from finger dancing to Clear Channel Inc deejays – at least, miraculous in terms of what one might expect, given subject matter and action? I was thinking about something noted in Alan Moore’s Watchmen, how during times of uncertainty nostalgia becomes the sexiest of all selling points – hence why Ozymandias began producing a nostalgia-wafting cologne pre-… well, pre-something involving a squidy thingy, if you’re not familiar with the work. Post-squidy-thingy, novelty becomes the enticement du jour – but I’m digressing, and not necessarily clearly, and so the material point is just that I was wondering if it was true that when things are shakey, we turn to the familiar, not merely personally but genuinely culturally. I was thinking about Mad Men, and PanAm, and my guilty pleasures. How consistently I choose the gooey romantic comedy over the documentary, because I like that I can trust it to tell me only kind things, that it will make me want something to happen (two characters getting together) and it will deliver it (the characters get together), easy as pizza. I was thinking about how much I love to blast those trash radio hits – Fergilicious, I’m looking at you – when I’m having a bad day, rather than the high quality albums I have at home, which grapple with bigger issues. And I was thinking about how much those songs push the same message, at least, in our heyday: I AM GOING TO GO PARTY, with various emphases on how much the party will revolve around your presence and whether or not there is going to be Patrone, and stacks on deck, perchance.
And I was thinking that we need them.
We need songs to blast in the garage.
We need to say that we’re crushing it.
Need to be able to chant it ten thousand strong.
And then get out of the car, and do it again.
A friend of mine wanted to sex-up science articles. I remember reading horribly depressing essays with Palahniuk-style sass about how the warm-heartedness generated by looking into a dog’s eyes and feeling connected was due to imbalanced chemical reaction in the brain. (She has since gotten into University of Michigan and really likes her logic classes there.) Very possible, nay, nigh likely, that the sudden contented connectedness I felt was hunger pang plus a neutrino, something like the warm assurance that a sitcom gives with the ever present things-might-change-but-whew-not-really plot points, perhaps even something sinister and sociological, a revolution dampened by telling sucker twenty-somethings working minimum wage that shit is fabulous through the melodic stylings of T. Pain instead of, say, Psycho Killer on repeat. (“Qu’est que c’est? Fa-fa-fa-fa-far better than!”) But I think we also need a salve, because things will be grueling, soon, I’m sure of it – and there is something to the Sheen-ism, I-am-on-top-when-I’m-at-the-bottom. I’m not … certain whether or not this is for the best. When Lake Wobegone’s motto is national chant (“all the women are strong, the men are good looking, and the children are above average”), how else can you have it both ways?
Perhaps there is a naïve specificity in saying that this is an American phenomenon. All human beings say to themselves, I am an above average driver, I have good taste, I am a good judge of people. This is demonstrably false – but even so, even as I type this, I still think that I do have impeccable taste, why, just look at my tumblr!
Where do the Good Books come from? No, Gideon, I refer not to the gospel truth, but rather those books that become gilt paged artifacts, cult-rages, the sort of texts that constitute literati canon. The Brothers Karamazov belongs here, as does Mrs. Dalloway, same for beat poetry, and bell hooks, and Joy Division. I asked the eminently wise Yuri Corrigan, once, after class, what made a book get written about – or rather, what allowed a book into the fold of cultural artifacts? His answer was that there was something far reaching in these books, something deep that needed to be written about that persisted with other generations. Hence why T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland is wrestled with by doctoral candidates, even now, while Tamora Pierce’s The Woman Who Rides Like A Man only circles around the middle school set. Both items take a stab at life, but the former cuts deeply, reaching ichor, and latter gets a bit of hemoglobin at best. By this theory Good Books are in part awarded the title due to intrinsic merits in the text, but also partly due to the hidden hands that deliver them into your lap – the million pre-readers who instill merit in the text by writing about it, engaging with it, who put it on the pedestal. Good Books are good because they are good, but also because we say they are good, and we can trust that they are good, and so the inheritors of Good Books are free to put their mouths right to marrow, right to the core, and draw it in. You take a Good Book to heart; there is no need to play the guessing game of how-meaningful-is-this-really. Whether or not you agree with it you treat it like it has something to say, something that will inform you about the world. They are on equal footing with us. They must be met. You may disagree, you may agree, you may even fail to understand, but unlike their trashy counterparts, you cannot swerve around them the way you evade any implications in, say, the Jersey Shore. Contemporary efforts do not have the free pass into heartfelt engagement that Good Books get, and so you try them out, put a toe in to test for meaning.
If they fail, then they might be consumed and set aside. See The Fast and the Furious, The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, 2 Fast 2 Furious, Fast and Furious, Fast Five.
If they succeed, then they might be engaged with, parried – you begin to treat them as if they had a harpoon in hand, and something needs to be done about it.
Did you read The Scarlet Letter in twelfth grade?
Do you remember the motif of rule-bound town space versus unruly wilderness?
Did you believe it, that there really was something true about that, that there was something spellbindingly true and intentional about that contrast? That it was really something in the text, and not just a playful game of observation, that it really shaded what the text said about the world and not just something you said on the test because you knew it was the answer?
The part of doctoral studies that always intimidated me the most has been the thought that I have contribute something to the table. The imperative is reasonable enough. You have been afforded an education, and repayment means a demonstration that this has been more than entertainment for the past few years, more than a consumption of theses – you have to add to the sum total in your own small way. That’s the deal, isn’t it? And it seems true, too, that you can’t just bob your head at every purported take on the world. You must pick and choose, because there is a way that things are, and not every story about the world will be true to this. And if you do that, then sharing the resulting picture seems fair enough. Perhaps we can fight ineffability with enough good stories, yours, and mine.
But the opposing picture seems fair, in its own sense, too: that reading a book does not end in another being written; that sometimes a thing might be swallowed whole and no bones need coughed back up after it, the rejected pieces, the tough bits. There is no contract specified at the outset of Good Books. There is no sense of loan when you encounter beautiful ideas. They are not less beautiful for having entered your consciousness, too.
I think this is why I love tumblr. Dogs eat their own vomit, and something frankly analogous is going on with gif-reblogging there, but there remains something magnificent about that. About people holding up something and saying, yes, this, without staking out some ideological turf for their own. Endorsement, not ownership. I don’t know a single kid who didn’t believe she’d be an astronaut or ballerina or president, that in some significant way the whole world would be looking at her when she’d grown up; I think there’s some resulting instinct in us to claim positions, jockey around for individuality by finding some untaken spot. My brother does this with tattoos. Isn’t Chance so weird, with his green mowhawk, and his bling, and his Cadillac with the personalized license plate? Why, just ask him! In contrast there is something refreshing about a hand raised in support, rather than a defended outpost. Maybe there is nothing special about a perspective being a perspective, and maybe by that right alone we oughtn’t rack up every you-story, every me-story. “Don’t talk unless you have something to say” – fuck that, son. Don’t talk unless you have something good to say!
Think of the last bad movie you really loved, and your guilty pleasure music choices, the kinds of enjoyments that you can’t really pin on some reasonable argument, the really fucking uncool shit. I’m talking ‘Two Princes,’ by Spin Doctors. I’m talking Pokémon – present day Pokémon.
Think of the last truly Good book you’ve read.
Think of the last thing that knocked you on your ass and made you say, Oh, that’s how it is.
There seems to be something wrong with swearing. At least, swearing often. Bad words, bad thoughts, bad deeds: these things are surely not unrelated.
Perhaps there is something similar to be said of trashy entertainment? Not trashy-entertainment, in contrast to good-entertainment, but something so devoid of value it is only serviceable as a diversion. If you wallow with the stuff for too long, there’s a danger of being brought to its level. Soul pollution, sisters and brothers. In The Princess and Curdie, George MacDonald details a vaguely Scholastic mythopoesis where a man’s handshake reveals how vicious he is by revealing what manner of beast he’s descended into. A lion’s paw? Too much timocracy in there, maybe, too much pride, but not so bad as beasts go. An invertebrate, perhaps a tentacle? Good god. Reality television might do something similar to you.
So we arrive at the crux: how can I watch Gossip Girl?
Lately it seems like there’s a lot of television shows about the lives of conniving wealthy teenagers, and part of the story there might link to blasting Black Eyed Peas in the garage when you don’t gotta feeling, you know tonight isn’t going to be a good night. Maybe the prevalence of such an unrealistic, seemingly unrelatable setting is because we need to dream: we are conqueror kings; Gucci girls; we are young and invincible. Rather than being grounded in similarity to our present condition, it’s the very gap between my lifestyle and Chuck Bass’s that makes it attractive as spectacle, as mantle, as hope. Escapism. Therapy. Something to bandage me up enough to go to my nine-to-fiver tomorrow. There is no up and out anymore. If you cannot reconcile your present life to the one you want, there’s something powerfully attractive about the idea of chanting along anyway, a la Charlie Sheen. Soul pollution? Sole solution! There’s something admittedly childish about that, because that seems like an excuse to stagnate rather than run off and chase your actual desires, and so slaking your disappointment via playing pretend. But let’s say there is nowhere better to go. Your American heart says, ‘But of course there is!’ Let’s say that it is wrong, when you think as rationally as you can, and exclude the romance of serendipity from the equation. High expectations with a lowly actuality makes for bad fucking times – better to sing along with pop music, I think. Is that the Gossip Girl story? (Substitute, as we go along, for whatever your guiltiest pleasure is.) Possibly, but not entirely. Let me consider further possibilities.
Another might be that I am a wealthy heiress to a railroad fortune and so it speaks to me on a level only fellow American peerage can understand. I reject this option out of hand.
Another might be that it is, despite all appearances, Good Stuff, and so investing in it isn’t a sin, mortal or otherwise.
Note that deceptively economic verb: investing. That’s what I am doing with this television when I make fan mixes (playlists detailing a certain character or relationship) and essays about its characters, or narratives, or setting, or another further piece of its anatomy. I invest in it. I engage with it. To repeat my language from earlier: I take it to heart. To remodel my language from earlier: I put my heart in it.
I think there is a way you can consume Samuel Beckett the same way you can consume Tom Cruise’s entire filmography. You let it filter through you. Supine. Limpdick. Consumption. Here, I mean consumption in counterpoint to investment. Comedy is often consumption; it relies on a yardstick’s distance between your pathos and the characters at hand, because otherwise it’d be terribly hard to endure Wile E. Coyote’s cinematic catalog. Professor Havholm once remarked that ‘comedy lowers us, and tragedy raises us,’ and I suspect the defining difference is that level of attachment inspired in the latter despite the equally disastrous results. A thing consumed cannot snag inside you. Though ‘consumption’ as a term bears certain digestive undertones, I like it, partially because it’s the same word we use to describe the 1950’s Kleenex attitude, in all its glorious naiveté: use it up, throw it away.
I think Gossip Girl is sufficiently real enough to invest in, but I do not think it is Good Stuff. Not in the capital-G sense, certainly, and I doubt it’ll be handed off to futurity. So does it all come down to Sheen-ism, that I like it because somehow relating to this setting transports me from my own squalor? No, I don’t believe so, though I’m not willing to cull that as a factor. I think that this work presents a perspective, just as any Good Book does, and I’ve met it in such a way that it matters to me whether or not the characters therein have good experiences or bad, and that I take their behaviors as meaningful. I feel the same way about the exploits of heroines and heroes in Good Books. In fact, at the starting point, Gossip Girl and Top Gun and Ulysses all go on the same shelf: they are things to be engaged with. Whether you do is up to you, but you cannot measure their quality before that remarkable point when life breathes into a text, and that point is prompted by your faith that what lies therein is real. Books can disappoint that faith, and so crumble back into palimpsest material, but I think there is no midway point prior to engagement where you might engage, might not engage, depending on the subsequent reader experience. You’ve got to risk it. After you put your heart into things, Good Books start to stretch their legs, because if they are really Good, they have a lot more of the real world packed into them than the myriad disappointments do, and so they mean more, they take in a sufficiently higher degree of soul.
And when you do this, there is no lying down. You begin to bite this, reject that. Sometimes you feel the need to say something, even a small something, because it is true, as a result of investing in texts. Sometimes you will press a like-button and have done with it. In contrast to the earlier characterization of soul pollution, where prolonged exposure to ‘bad’ things leaves a little tarnish on one’s quality of thought, I think souls pollute from a lack of engagement. They rust! I think the reason that I love pop music is because I love that candy rhythm, that I love not just what I’m engaging with but the mere fact of engagement. I think everything has something to tell you when you listen to it.
This theory might not hold for Triumph of the Will.
We circle back to the beginning:
Don’t call me a contra!
‘Til you’ve tried.