Friday, December 30, 2005

Welcome, Puppet-Master!

I have lived my life with the terror that one of these days, a puppet-master will arrive in my midst. This person, likely a lover (so the consequences can be suitably devastating) would quickly and accurately assess my inner self. “Here’s a person in desperate need of comfort. Here’s a sharp mind, afraid of her own weakness. Here is someone who has always hoped for dignity, but knows she has not the restraint to maintain it…” The puppet-master would go on, easily summing up my main character flaws and holes in logic, the same lacks that I have spent my lifetime trying to pinpoint. But the PM, looking from the outside, has no struggle whatsoever with seeing me as I am. He would then--just as deftly--figure out exactly how to dupe me, and exactly how to flatter me, and exactly how to humor me, and exactly how to keep me at bay. “First, I’ll compliment her mind, then, ever-so-subtly, I’ll make a reference to her perpetual insecurity, her little-girl-ness, and then--to show I really understand her--I’ll act charmed by her stuntedness, because I know just how much it disgusts her.” The PM’s strategies would all involve coaxing the best and worst from me simultaneously, perhaps so he can entertain himself with how absurd my paradoxes are. Or maybe he’d do this just to disarm me. When I am trotting out both my brilliance and my neuroses at once, I’ll no doubt look upon myself with confusion and even horror: how can all this exist in me at once? By keeping me in a state of perpetual--and baffled--self-reflection, the PM distracts me from trying to analyze him. He then can sit back and enjoy the show. But god knows what “the show” is to him! Is it my cleverness devouring itself? Or is it his evident mastery of my feelings; his complete conquest?

The PM might even be more sophisticated than all that. Perhaps, instead, he does all this simply to show me the hypocrisy of my ways. He sees that I am an amateur philosopher with ideas that aren’t really life-friendly, so he aims to reduce me into hysteria so he can smugly point out that I cannot follow my own decrees. But then I think to myself--what would be the point?! I never claimed to be anything but witty, genius, deeply flawed and purposely hypocritical--it isn’t as if I’ve held myself up as a symbol of purity, or logic, or austerity! How can the PM really undo me, when my whole life-approach is so wildly self-referential, so self-undercutting? I guess, because of my beliefs, the PM would take special pleasure in showing me that even the most self-effacing and vice-accepting world-views have a huge helping of corruption and sheer vanity. But why would someone as clever as the PM bother to form a relationship with me, just to show me this? What would be the point of destroying my illusion, when the PM--if he’s so clever--could simply write a tract on the short-sightedness and egotism of my type of world-view? He wouldn’t need to bother with ruining me if he could see how I would be ruined.

Once I’ve reached this point in my thinking, you’d think that the whole thought of a puppet-master appearing to undo me would fade like any other chimera born of paranoia. Not so. The image I have just presented is replaced by an even worse conception: what if there’s someone who is a natural puppet-master? Someone who, without any thought, naturally manipulates. Someone who is duplicitous by nature without any accompanying logic to give that dual-sidedness motive or meaning. Someone who is everyone’s great love and best friend, but he himself has no center, loyalty, or feelings. He merely morphs into whatever you need. But he does this not out of generosity, or out of love, but out of emptiness. He is nothing but a reflection of your desires…and his seeming answer of those desires is only an echo of your yearnings…if you were smart, you’d see the echo as proof you were indeed in an empty place.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

The American Relationship to Transience

Once, when trying to describe Hawthorne’s attitude to my friend Chris, I set this scene: Imagine a woman, sitting in a rocking chair hearth-side; her face blank with serenity. You would guess that, if she spoke (and she really needn’t because all seems resolved in this scene) she would draw attention to her tranquility by commenting on her surroundings or some other source of her comfort. Perhaps she would point out how perfectly stoked the fire is, or cuddle deeper within her throw with a remark on how soft its threads, or maybe she’d refer back some particularly satisfying aspect of dinner, such as the gravy being “just-so.” But, when this woman speaks, she says none of that. Instead, with a luxurious sigh befitting a memory of a lover, she says with absolute pleasure and absolute confidence: “All the paradoxes to come!” And then, before you can ask what exactly she’s referring to and, more pointedly, why any upcoming paradox would please her so, she closes her eyes leaving you only her faint, twitching smile to consider. Better to witness such a strange reverie rather than grill her on its source, you think, and remain the observer.

Hawthorne is the only author who can greet something like paradox as if it were a creature comfort. Paradox, irony, terrible tensions of the moral and the aesthetic--none of these abstractions should ever be “cozy.” Don’t they involve too much rigorous thought? Aren’t they, ultimately, unsettling? Not for Hawthorne and not for me. There is a serenity borne of their permanence. Unlike a certainty, or a purity, or a pole of thought, paradox has staying power. It can be used to describe almost any situation, and there’s always eternity in what can be forever applied. Still, there is one particular paradox that I don’t feel like just basking in: The American attitude towards transience.

Months ago, I was leafing through the New York Times entertainment pages and noticed a large picture of two hands--one male and one female--just barely touching on the edge of a park bench. It was part of a movie ad, but I didn’t bother to catch which movie. Obviously, this picture was meant to indicate the first innocent foray into love and romance and ultimately a physical relationship between two people. Oh the beauty--the ad seemed to be saying--of the first tentative touch! Of the stilted straining towards one another! Of the newborn passion, inflamed by a mere touch of hands! Oh the tingling, oh the anticipation..! But that first touch between would-be lovers is transience itself. The “firsts” of love end. They must.

So much of American media is courting, courting, courting and no payoff or aftermath. The first moments of love, immortalized in some bullshit romantic comedy, are presented as if they possess some larger truth, something we should all strain towards. But what? And how? And, as numerous feminist critics have pointed out, youth is also exalted in the media and beyond. We love our prodigies. We love the precocious young. We love the virginal, the unspoilt, the innocence and idiocy and of youth itself. Kids say the darndest things!

Youth gains its magic from the pure fact it ends, as does the early stages of romance. We know that the hands barely touching will progress into kissing, into sex, into arguments, into marriage, into kids, into domestic squabbles, into boredom with sex, into pathetic attempted “rekindling” of passion, into apathy, into…you know. Love always begins with “such promise” but that promise is transient. Early love is enchanted because it ends. Likewise, if we remained children forever childhood wouldn’t have such appeal. Youth is enthralling because it is fleeting. The child appeals to us because of the sheer wonder: when will this creature alter forever into one of us? What will alter it? A child has such presence, such potency, that it is a pure bafflement that childhood doesn’t endure. The mystery of childhood is that it can exist so powerfully, and disappear so subtly.

You’d think, in a society that reveres youth and “firsts”, that transience itself would become appealing. You’d think that the transience of life would be better appreciated. Death should be exalted, because it guarantees the enchantment of life. Life, like childhood, like “the first time,” ends. Therefore, the elderly, being closest to death should fascinate us. The two hands, barely touching, appeal to us because they are on the brink--they represent the last chaste moment and the first passionate one all at once. An elderly person is also on the brink--they live, but their death is obviously immanent. Yet Americans find death horrifying, and old people dull and dismissible. The American transience-paradox is this: we love the little lives and deaths of children (by “dying” I mean changing into adults) and we love the brief life of fresh attraction, but the larger life and death that love and youth typify, we fear. We are attracted by symbolic births and deaths (such as flirtation and consummation) but repelled by death, the very thing that gives metaphoric currency to any such transience. We love the symbol, but not what is symbolized. We prefer the crucifix to the crucifixion!

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Charm--->No Need For God's Love

I’m going to be talking a lot about charm. This may be the extension of a trend that began with my “Irony” project. When I first began writing on irony, I was sure that the exploration of that term and idea would lead to an exposure of the Ineffable, if only I could just talk about it enough. For some reason, desperately and endlessly exploring the implications (imagined most likely) of a term seems the only truth I can scare up. Maybe its got a little to do with Bible-envy. Though I claim to be as godless as they come, I do wish I had a single something to analyze and analyze and sermonize from for my whole life. I often wanted to do that with Hawthorne’s House of the Seven Gables, but even I see that Hawthorne is far too much the personality to be suitably preachable. Yes, you can certainly analyze literature and speculate on its spiritual and moral recommendations and perhaps parlay that into life pointers, but its tone will always interfere. Any decent piece of literature has a tone, a feel, an attitude that never fully gives way to any intentions. If Hawthorne has ever intended a moral in his tales, it can never be fully extracted from his tone--a tacit, steady and pervading mirth that waysides everything (including moral considerations) but itself. Hawthorne meticulously builds his pulpit seemingly to deliver some great lesson to the world, but once he scrambles up and regards the throng, he just dances about. Is this irreverent--is playing on the pulpit a dark commentary on the emptiness of looking for any direction or uncorrupted authority? No, no, its merely a show of Hawthorne’s reverence for play. Of course I think nothing could be wiser than that, but it does limit what I can do with his works. You can’t have full play with something already in the midst of play.

But words, just words alone, with their constrained and implication-less definitions are just begging for someone with the verve and slight wildness of a preacher (but sans the distraction of faith) to reintroduce them to the world. So I direct you away from your dictionary, away from your paltry and barren ideas of what charm means, away from charm-schools, charming young folk and charmers of all sorts, and towards a new conception of charm that may (hopefully) serve to replace beauty and truth and all those yearned things we’re supposed to have outgrown.

I don’t see much point in talking about what, or who, is charming. Not because its too subjective--I’m always willing to talk about subjective impressions as if they were facts. But how charm is experienced by the person who perceives it seems a lot more worthy a topic than any private riffing on what I find charming. Why do we find anything charming? How are we charmed? I started to think about charm because it seemed that Hawthorne’s profound effect on me is because of how charmed he seemed by humankind. Even in his treatment of his most (by his own admission) dull characters, Hawthorne seems sort of lovingly amused at their foibles. To me, Hawthorne has a special sense for seeing charm in the seemingly unprepossessing. He was so aware of this talent for being charmed that he challenged himself, in his short sketch “The Old Apple Dealer,” to find something appealing in an old, colorless apple merchant he spots in a train terminal. By the end of this sketch, Hawthorne has charmed himself into believing that this subdued figure is chock full of enough universe to inspire “tome after tome.” But part of Hawthorne’s special sense is that he could see that in anyone, given enough observation.

Charm is dependant on relishing nuance--a tone of voice, an oddity of gesture, a curious phrasing and qualities equally minute. But it isn’t dependent on so-called positive qualities. We may find someone charming because of their good looks or wit, but his or her vulnerabilities and flaws might stir the same feeling. Making such use of detail--good and bad---seems the most serious type of appreciation. I’ve always preferred the feeling of being charmed to thinking that someone is beautiful or good, because those feelings are more ego-driven. A good person will do right by me, and beauty pleases me aesthetically. A charming person, however, promises nothing to the beholder. Yes, I may remain enchanted, but my welfare or pleasure isn’t absolute or paramount when I’m charmed. Because I might be charmed by a combo of weakness, mischief, innocence, and wit in another person, my transfixion is probably likewise paradoxical. It isn’t all based on what I want or some ideal of mine, and it may not even be safe. It is a more reckless appreciation, and therefore a fuller one.

But Monica---someone might interject--couldn’t you just be talking about love here? What the hell? To which I respond--No, its different than falling in love. It calls for less from you. When you start falling in love, suddenly you’re called upon to examine your feelings--check and re-check that it is indeed love, contemplate what to do about it , review past loves to notice or deny any holding patterns, display your feelings in some difficult gesture, steel your self against rejection, etc etc, All that shit gets so heavy handed! The half-conscious and delicately wrought sense of charm is utterly different than the heady and insistant feeling of love. Charm doesn’t demand that you run-though some checklist of hysteria when you see it.

Charm is preferable to love because it has more interesting spiritual applications. We can’t really hope to love the world, nor can we really, honestly, expect god to love us. Not because we’re sinners, and not because the world is so awful, but because love wouldn’t do us, or the world, justice. Love is too absolute, too much an end in itself. If god were to love us, he wouldn’t really need to appreciate us. He wouldn’t need to delight in our nuances, he wouldn’t need to feel affection for our weakness, he wouldn’t need to be charmed by us at all. He could just radiate this one-note ‘love’ over us and leave it at that. Whereas a charmed god would allow himself to be enchanted by his creation--he wouldn’t simply check in on us to see if we need more love or need to be punished a little by less. He would watch us for our dear little foibles! I would rather have a powerless god who appreciated us this way rather than an omni-everything god rendering the world featureless in his glaring “love.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

If God Appeared

What would the Christians do if God appeared?
Rejoice, right? Rephrase ‘I told you so’ into something more suitably high-minded? “This should come as no surprise for those who heeded the Word. Those who did not can no longer cower in their doubt.” But don’t begrudge them a little sportsmanlike gloating, some subtle showboating. Let them cluck their tongues at the unbelievers, let the mass of their celebrating be in the form of their sticky-sweet words for the losers. Let them shake their head and say “if only you had listened” as you file into the “unsaved” group. They were right, they did earn this, and besides, this may be the last bit of fun they have. Because when God arrives, Christianity will end.
This won’t be because God will smote them, or admonish them for doing a poor job. That may very well happen (from what I understand from snippets I hear from Christian media, we are doing a pretty lax job of repenting, serving God, and spreading the word. At least it seems that way. Otherwise, why would they constantly remind us?) Even if God praises them up and down on their service and faith, they’re still sunk. Because when God arrives, he’ll take away the Christians most defining feature. He’ll rob them of faith and, in UnGod-like stinginess, leave in its place the costume-jewelry version: certainty.
Faith and certainty are not interchangeable, unfortunately for any Christian after God’s arrival. No matter what a Christian will tell you, they are not certain of God. They have faith in his existence. Faith is believing something despite: despite the doubters, despite the physical evidence, despite everything. This despite is the joy of Christianity. Although unbelievers may say that Christians have no mind of their own, having faith is an extreme act of personal will. It is the ultimate way of having your own mind. To believe despite is to ask your own individual ego to rise above everything you hear and see. And that is what makes Christianity satisfying. The feeling that you are somehow special, not because of God’s grace, but because of the triumph of your ego over the ambiguous world.
When God comes, they’ll be no need for that. Certainty is not a willed thing. When something is certain, it becomes an imposition on you. You are not conjuring it up, you are not making reality out of doubt. God is here, pointing to and for, demanding this and praising that, and it has nothing to do with your belief. He’s just there, like anything else in life. Just like you don’t choose to believe in the poor weather the day God arrives. That certainty is imposed on you when you feel the big, fat raindrops on your head and wish you brought an umbrella and then wonder if you’d have to lower your umbrella, like taking off your hat, in the presence of God. It must not involve any great act of will to be certain of God if you have enough left to muse so absurdly.
The real Christians, strangely, seem preoccupied in the presence of their God. For some reason, they keep reminding everyone that they believed even before God arrived. It seems like such a small point now, I mean, God is here. Who cares who believed what when? Look, God! Is that how you imagined he’d be? Did he just look at me? I thought he’d be more like staring into the sun, where you’d have to look away. But He’s a completely accessible glory. I wonder if anyone has made the pun about him being more down-to-earth than they expected. I wonder if anyone said that to him. I bet he’d think it was funny only if you were the first to say it. Do you think anyone’s said that to him yet? Do you think I should? He’d probably remember me better if I did, but I’ll look really dumb if someone else said it first. I don’t think I could handle having God roll his eyes at me.
In the presence of God, everyone is having similar fun with their thoughts but the poor Christians. Everyone now sees what they thought only a very strong and special few could. No one seems interested in what it took to believe with few signs for so long. Before God came along, they felt like they has such identity. They alone believed. It felt so noble to carry that faith through a crowd of doubters, centuries of human suffering, and infinite personal trials. Now everyone believes. Even the unsaved say things like “gotta hand it to ya” and slap them on the back in recognition. Everyone is certain and no one needs to bother with faith. Without their faith, that ultimate defiant act of personhood, they are now truly just servants of God. But how they come to long for the days when that didn’t mean doing his bidding but instead meant faith in his existence--that private little triumph of self that sustained them so long.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Make the Price The Prize, the Toll the Goal, the Sacrifice the Reward

I occasionally have an argument with myself over my level of buffoonery. I’ve always figured my audacity, my lack of real, unified knowledge, and my propensity for pronouncements add up to this image: Monica is a entertaining, buffoonish lay-philosopher. She’s part crude peasant woman (with the attending plainspeakin’ wisdom) and part pure abstraction. She tests the limits of homespun-ness by keeping herself just ignorant enough of real ideas and research to maintain her simple charm, yet she reads just enough to keep the new ideas a’coming.
So the argument is this: On one hand, I know my ideas will never carry the weight of a real literature “scholar” or philosopher because I don’t bother with research or figuring out the “dialogue” of these fields enough to interject with something well-timed and on-topic. So, to talk the way I do, I risk looking like a buffoon. Sometimes I think: Monica, you’re just lazy. Or arrogant. Or defiant. Don’t even try to defend your buffoonery with some trumped-up logic.
But then I think….looking buffoonish is the price I pay to say what I say and how I say it. And then: that’s the PRICE I pay? Maybe that’s the reward. Maybe I want to preserve my buffoonery. Maybe that’s the PRIZE. You need to be a buffoon, I say to myself (and now being a buffoon is part of the “point”) You need to maintain your lack of discretion! You need to be this uncultivated!
It’s characteristic of my worldview to see the toll of something as the goal. I will look like a buffoon because of my silly certainty and unfounded ideas, so I start to see looking like a buffoon as a treat or reward for those very ideas. Which is likely why I integrated “buffoonery” into my ideal image. I think that we need people who just blurt out intuitive shit with little or no regard for the flow of things. People who keep a rapid-fire stream of philosophical ideas, not bothering to linger on one or two for a career (which scholars and philosophers do) but giving the full breadth of all that they can believe—save the depth ( the development, the proof) for the next lifetime or someone else.
It’s also characteristic of my worldview to see my personality—particularly its flaws—as serving some “essential” purpose in the world. Should I begin a self-help program, cultivating vices and flaws would be one of its cornerstones. As I like to say, cultivating only your virtues is like canoeing with only one paddle on only one side—you’re bound to go in circles. But nurturing both your virtues AND vices is like paddling with two paddles on both sides. You’ll be propelled ever forward on the alternating current of good and evil.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Laughing at the Prodigy

When I was driving home the other day, I tuned into NPR and was disturbed by what I heard. A young piano prodigy was being interviewed, presumably still on stage. A male voice softly lobbed this question, as if it needed to be asked delicately: “Do you still get nervous up here with all these people watching?” “Sometimes I do…but when I start playing I stop shaking and just get into it…” She was eleven years old. Her speech had adult cadences but still retained the aural pertness particular to children. Or perhaps the cadence of her speech had something to do with being crowd-savvy. She knew when to pause for laughter and when she could resume. And there was so much laughter! When she said that children shouldn’t “sit on their butt all day and watch TV” this bit of wisdom was greeted with veritable roars. Even comedians are never greeted with such unabashed laughter. What was strange about the laughter is that it was all the same tone. If you ever really listen to a crowd laughing, you’ll usually hear, behind the braying of the lead laugher (the one that likes to lead the crowd into it and then punctuate with one last chuckle after everyone’s done) you’ll hear other laughs. Doubting sniffs. Knowing chuckles. Restrained snorts of half-derision half-amusement. Laughs that seemed pained, as if they’re an involuntary acknowledgement of something. Wild peals that seem as if they could only come from someone who hasn’t laughed in forever, someone who nearly forgot how and is celebrating the return of laughter in their very laughing. “Ahhhhaaaa I can laugh!” Regardless of whether or not all these types are represented, the point is laughter varies. Not everyone is amused in the same way. But this crowd all seemed to be uniformly tickled. It was all the Awwwww how cute! laughter, and nothing else. There wasn’t a single cynic to break that up with a scoff-laugh hybrid.
I suppose one could say that this is a wonderful thing. Its wonderful that we all are universally charmed by precocious children. That we all respect and delight in innocence enough. That ,even in this ever darkening world, with all its moral quandaries and tensions, we can still take a time-out to enjoy—and even benefit from—the simple wisdom of children. But I don’t see it this way. I think the way we laugh at precocious children is incredibly dark.
One reason I think we laugh at precocious children is that we love the naiveté of children attempting to act like an adults. No matter how hard a child tries to sound mature, there will always be a word or a tone that will give them away. So we wait for that sweet “giveaway” clue (like the piano-prodigy saying “butt) to laugh, presumably because we’re relieved to see that you can’t escape childhood through will. Isn’t it cute to watch a child fall back into their rank after adorably scrambling to look adult? We laugh at how absurdly naïve it is for a child to think they can appear as anything else. And we laugh in relief that children will be children and adulthood does, in fact, wait.
We also laugh, I think, a little out of admiration. It’s sort of noble for a child to fight back their stutters, their scatteredness, their naughtiness, and try to be more than they are. And they have a certain idealism that we adults lack. We know the limits of what we can be, and we know what we can and can’t control. But isn’t it heartening to see a child, unfettered by these truths?
Now I think this is all dark, because of what it says about adulthood. The fact is, no adult will EVER be laughed at the way the little girl was. Adults, quite simply, cannot be precocious, because we see precociousness as purely a child’s quality. Still, why couldn’t an adult be precocious—couldn’t those qualities appear later in life? Naively trying to be something older, wiser, and maybe better than you are. What would that be for an adult? Would that be an adult who tries to be “post-human?” Something better than the human race as is?
And the naïve part. Certainly there are adults who naively, we would say, pursue what’s out of reach, or don’t see their limits. But this group of people isn’t charming to us the way a child is with the same qualities. An adult like this may look brave, or admirable, or stupid, or short-sighted, but they will never look cute. They will never elicit that all-agreed-upon laughter we aim at the prodigy child, overstepping her little self.
There is then, a limit to how much an adult can charm us. To be charmed, so purely and thoroughly as we are by children, is our only real form of communal love. It is one of our few, if not only, universal affections, and it ends for everyone at about 14. We have a little hate for all adults, for their inherent un-cuteness (because we are adults, and see ourselves as "un-cute"), and that’s what makes what should be charming naiveté look like idiocy.
One final reason why I think we laugh at precocious children is that we need one outlet to laugh at how impossible it is, really, to be an adult. When a child slips up and shows her age, we sympathize so deeply, because we were forever slipping up ourselves. However, our slip-ups are never greeted with the warm laughter of strangers. We never laugh at another adult’s vain and misguided and painfully sincere attempts to get through the world. We should, though. We should see the whole fucked-up human enterprise as adorable in its limitations and endless, even glorious, earnestness.

Sunday, November 20, 2005


Welcome. This blog will cover the following topics in the following weeks:
1. Death. I'm convinced that I'm mere days away from conjuring up a theory of death that I'll find acceptable. It may not be true or logical but it will be pro-mirth and anti-bliss for sure.
2.Prodigies. I think the way we laugh at precocious children is extremely dark. The fact that an adult cannot be "precocious" is evidence of our lack of legitimate innocence.
3.Charm. All we can hope for from the earth is charm. To love the earth is to be charmed by it in all its naivitee and sad-sacness. Charm trumps beauty and truth because...
4.Cosmic Comedians. Its easy enough to imagine another race on another planet with social mores, traditions, foods and habitat. But try to imagine the comedy there, and you'll realize you haven't imagined another race at all.