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.