Friday, August 27, 2010

Against Authenticity

 When J. D. Salinger died early this year, the accounts of his life in places like the The New York Review of Books described a man desperate to live some kind of life he could believe in.  Reading about it you get the feeling that, like his protagonist Holden Caulfield, Salinger couldn't stand phoniness, and thus couldn't stand the possibility that he, himself, would be leading an inauthentic, fake sort of life.  In Salinger's case, this seemed to have manifested itself primarily through a rejection of the life of literary fame in literary circles in literary cities like New York, in favor of ordinary life in simple towns like Cornish, New Hamphsire.

I've always had a complicated relationship to The Catcher in the Rye, and reading about Salinger made it feel more complicated.  When I first read it as assigned reading in high school, I was indignant:  "What a BOY'S BOOK this is," I thought.  "So, at 14 years old I'm considered to young to see racy movies but I have to read a book about a guy visiting prostitutes??"  I'm no prude, and I wasn't one then, but it really bugged me that so few of Holden's problems or adventures seemed to carry over to my female adolescent experience.  As I got older I came to like the book a lot, perhaps because it's actually easier for the grown-up me to identify with Holden's problems than it was for the 14 year old me to do so.

In fact, as I got older, I began to enjoy all of Salinger's books.  But I was always bothered by something I felt I didn't understand.  These characters all seemed to be seeking something, wanting something, wanting life to be something other than what it was, and I could never tell whether the point was, Hey, These are intelligent, reflective people, reflecting on the meaning of life, or whether it was more like, Hey, These people are in the grip of a massive illusion, that reflection will tell them something about the meaning of life.

For whatever it's worth -- and probably not much -- Salinger's life details sure do suggest the former.  When I read about Salinger's attempt to escape his life of literary fame, and his attempt to live a kind of authentic life, it seemed to me he had immediately created for himself an impossible situation.  I mean, here's a guy who is a famous author. That is his actual reality.  But he's going to go live in Cornish and try to live the life of a guy who is not a famous author?  To try to live a more authentic life? It's almost by definition an inauthentic life.  How can you live as what you really are if you're always pretending to be something else?

The whole story just added to a feeling I've long had, the the problem in such cases isn't the "living as what you are not" as much as the "trying to be authentic."

People always talk about authenticity like it's such a great thing, but I think for all its appeal, it's got a dark side.  For one thing, the whole concept of authenticity implies a kind of essentialism.  If you're just becoming what your social world expects of you, obviously that doesn't count, so authenticity must mean instead something like being the way your really are inside.  But when you put it like that, it starts to seem weird.  I mean, we grow up with families in communities -- are their influnces somehow making us inauthentic? And if not, why would the social world of our adulthood be any different?

Furthermore, as Lynda Barry so memorably puts it, what if your real self is awful?  What do you do then? 

And what about change?  As you know if you're an adult, it's hard to change, even when you really want to.  Pascal, of course, tells us that if you want to change, the first step is to live as if the change has already happened:  if you want to believe in god, he says, go to church, hang around with believers, and do good deeds.  And it's true, if you want to change, just having different habits is the first step.  But obviously that would be forbidden if you were trying to be all "authentic" and non-phony all the time.  What Pascal recommends is like the essence of phoniness.

Anyway, I've got a theory about why people like authenticity, and it's this:  ironically, what people like about authenticity isn't the truth of authenticity but the appearance of authenticity -- even the artifice of authenticity will do. 

This comes up over and over whenever people have occasion to discuss other people's manners at length.  A lot of those occasions are in European novels of the past, where the ultimate praise for others' manners is for how "natural" they are -- and I take this to mean, the person does not seem to be pretending, does not seem to be nervous, does not seem to be acting out a set of etiquette rules, but rather has an simple and comfortable way that suggests confidence.

But it's not just a thing of the past.  We criticize people now for manner that seems not quite natural, not quite at ease, somehow seeking to create an effect.  But I don't think it's because care about people's true selves; I think it's for the same reason Jane Austen criticized these things:  such manners are unpleasant.

The manners of people living who they are can be very appealing.  The sort of characters we associate with authenticity ... they convey a kind of self-assurance that makes you think, Hm, I'd like to be like that.  But the moral of that isn't to try to become those characters; the moral of that is just that self-assurance is attractive, however you go about getting it.

This kind of authenticity is more like the courage of your convictions than it is about being true to one's self, or contrasting one's true self to one's social self.  We like that courage.  Even when it's faked.

If you want this kind of authenticity, you've got to either relentlessly say what you really believe, or you've got to be a really good actor, or some combination of the two.  But either way, it's got nothing to do with true selves, or with living an ordinary life, or with being "some guy in Cornish" rather than "a famous author."

Friday, August 20, 2010

Wanted: Lively But Comatose Best Friend For Life

The title of this blog comes from my favorite book, Amazons: An Intimate Memoir by the First Woman Ever to Play Hockey in the National Hockey League, by Cleo Birdwell.  The book is really by Don Delillo together with maybe some co-author; for reasons I cannot fathom Delillo has disowned the book, refusing to acknowledge paternity.

The book is, naturally, about Cleo Birdwell's career as the first woman in the NHL.  Cleo isn't like other female characters in novels.  She's straight ahead; she's funny; she's cheerful.  She likes to sleep around. She's kind of a small-town girl, but she's great friends with her loony New York agent, Floss Penrose, who likes to make soup and play strip monopoly with younger men.  Cleo is all about simplicity and not over-thinking things, and in tough times she repeats her life's organization scheme:  "I just want to play hockey."

Early on Cleo meets up with Shaver Stevens, another hockey player, whose career has been cut short by a rare disease called Jumping Frenchman's.  The treatment for this involves being put to sleep in a Kramer cube, which is like a glass box with tubes, and Shaver spends about half the book asleep in Cleo's apartment, having his various needs tended to by Cleo, then by a goth teen from "Nurses Anonymous" while Cleo is at some away games, and finally by Floss herself, while Cleo is on vacation back home.

Women love Shaver -- or, rather, women love a man-in-a-Kramer.  First it's Floss, who tells Cleo she must have one for herself.  Someone "sensitive, wryly humorous . . . Likes movies, being spontaneous in the Hamptons . . . The longer the sleep period the better."  Then it's the woman from Success magazine who comes to do a profile. "That's the most beautiful face I've ever seen . . . If he were mine, I'd keep him in there as long as I could . . . I guess that sounds selfish and cruel doesn't it?  I'm sorry."  They see his striped pajamas, his serious but kind face, his fit body, and they think, Why can't I have one?

OK, so maybe you're thinking Oh ha ha, cheap throwaway jokes about a certain type of superficiality.  But I think the desire for the Kramered partner is more widespread than you might think.  Think about it.  A TV is kind of like a Kramer box, rendering you temporarily passive while your nutritional needs get met.  And people often prefer to have their loved-ones rendered passive by TV than actually interacting with them all the time.  Interaction is dangerous.  A person engaging with you might say something challenging, or hurtful, or even just slightly less loving than you'd expect.  But a person watching TV ... you know he's there; you know she cares; like Floss, you can rely on the knowledge that you've got a companion -- without all the trouble and risk of actual interaction.

Have you never had that feeling, sitting with your friends or your spouse watching some show they like, and thinking, Well, I know for the next little while things will be completely predictable? It's further evidence for my hypothesis that couples, as time goes on, watch more and more movies at home.  It suggests a lot of us kind of want what Floss wants, a best friend for life, someone who shares our interests, someone who will always be there, someone who likes being spontaneous in the Hamptons but will probably sleep forever.

At one point Cleo asks the obvious.  "I know this is a dumb question, but if he's asleep, what's the point of all those things?"  And Floss says, "Just to know something about him.  To be secure within myself that I'm involved with someone compatible."  I guess it's like having a virtual boyfriend or something, but isn't it nicer and more interesting that he's physically present?

The title of this blog, by the way, refers to Cleo's good-natured refusal to consider the question of what happens when Shaver wakes up.  That's when Cleo says, "I don't know. I haven't thought beyond the Kramer. The Kramer is now."  That's Cleo for you, living effortlessly in the present.  Is it any wonder I try to make her my guide to life?

Friday, August 13, 2010

Boring Movies Are Boring

I didn't like the movie but I kind of love Russell Brand.
I went to see the movie Get Him to the Greek a couple of weeks ago.  Guess what? I found it kind of stupid.

I don't mean that it's "a stupid movie" in the ordinary, predictable way that some movies are stupid.  In that sense I went to see it because it was a stupid movie:  a movie with silly jokes, over the top character acting, an implausible plot, and charismatic and attractive stars -- well, one charismatic and attractive star anyway.

What was stupid about it was that it was, aside from the quick jokes and cultural satire, completely boring.  I had kind of high hopes from the initial set up, which seemed to me full of promise:  nerdy young man meets the fading rock star he used to idolize.  So many things could have happened.  Was the guy going to challenge the rock star by being the only person willing to tell him the uncomfortable truth? Was the rock star going to hate him for it? Or was the rock star going to love him for his honesty?  Would the guy be disillusioned by being up close to that which, from far away, seemed so appealing and cool?

The movie kept having weird disconnected moments related to these themes, but they just never added up to anything.  One minute the nerdy guy is sucking up, one minute he's not, you never really understand what is going on with that.  It's supposed to be about friendship, but you never really get why they become such unlikely friends.  It's not Aaron's honesty, because he isn't honest.  It's not because of Aaron's fidelity, because Aaron isn't really loyal.  I think it's just because poor Aldous is so very unhappy and Aaron ... well, he just happens to be around. 

There's no parts of the movie that make you feel challenged in anything, or thoughtful, or ambivalent.  Indeed, with respect to themes, the most you could say is that the writer and director want you to know that Taking Drugs Is Bad, Having Casual Sex Will Get You Into Trouble, and You Should Love Your Family Members.

I thought maybe this was just a flukey thing, like you know, sometimes movies don't come out right for complicated unexpected reasons.  That was the impression I left with.  But then there was a New Yorker article profiling Steve Carell and describing the new way of making comedies.  Basically, someone comes up with a basic idea, and then a "bucket brigade" of funny guys like Judd Apatow come around and punch it up with ideas and then the actual dialogue of the movie is just improvised.

I get what these people are trying to do, but you can see how the resulting movies are kind of pointless, because aside from things like "wouldn't it be funnier if you said 'banana' instead of 'fruit'? Ha ha ha, hilarious!!" basically no thought is going into these movies at all. 

I gather the new movie made with this strategy is the Dinner for Schmucks movie.  If ever a plot cried out for a dollop of reflection it's this one:  dinner is a competition for who can bring the most idiotic guest, with none of the guests knowing why they're there.  But The New Yorker describes the creative process as revolving around moments like the one in which Carell changes one line from "She's talking to a lobster" to "She's talking to a manatee" and everyone explodes in laughter.  Ha ha ha! Manatee! hilarious!   

I have to confess, my reaction on reading this was some serious eye-rolling.  These guys are like, Hey, we're funny! We can just say stuff and it'll be funny! Movies Made E-Z.

People, it doesn't have to be this way.  All you need is a script.  You can improvise more jokes after you write it. Do it for me, and do it for Russell Brand, who really deserves better.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Family Dynamics Of Some New World Countries

Pretty climate map of North America
I've always thought of the United States as a fundamentally adolescent sort of country.  Think about it:  the things America says are just the things teenagers say.  "I don't need you." "I'm going to do it my own way." "You're not the boss of me" and, of course, "I'm special and not like any other country on earth!"

It's natural to think that if the US is an adolescent, then Europe is a continent full of adults, and there seems to me something to this.  Some European countries have the air of people who have been through a lot of trouble and just want some quiet time to enjoy life.  They're like, OK, enough with the constant fighting and complaining! We've got better things to do.

I moved to Canada a few years ago, and I started to think, Well, if you think of Europe as the parents and the US as a kid, then clearly Canada is a kind of sibling.  Both the US and Canada are kind of like the children of broken homes -- the offspring of parents who don't always get along peacefully and who occasionally use the kids to get back at one another.

The thing is, I think, that where the US is a pain-in-the-ass ungrateful teenager, Canada is like a sensible younger child -- say, an eight or ten year-old.  You know those kids:  they basically have it together; they like doing things with the family; they have excellent senses of humor and mostly, they're annoyed and mystified by the behavior of their adolescent siblings.

Can't you picture it?  The scene:  an afternoon picnic with extended family.  America is texting under the table, rolling her eyes at her great-aunt, and picking a fight with some cousin.  She gets up to leave early, pissing everyone off.  Canada says, "Why do you always have to be so difficult?  Mom says we're going to all play scrabble and then go out for ice cream."

I love the United States, but as everyone knows, dealing with adolescents is exhausting.  In the excellent book White Noise by Don Delillo, there's a boy adolescent, Heinrich, who basically argues with everyone about everything.  There's one moment where his father, Jack, finally says something to which the boy responds "Exactly." Jack says something to himself like "I paused, savoring the rare moment of agreement."

I often travel between Canada and the United States, and I'm always amazed, coming back to Canada, by the absence of anger.  It's like you've been with Heinrich arguing all day and you're mad and worn out and irritable and then you encounter the younger kid, who gives you one of those knowing looks kids have, and says to you, "Hey, you wanna go to the aquarium or something?"

And you're like, "Yeah. Yeah, I do."