12/03/2002

Thinking about death? Why not think about art instead?

If you’re thinking of death, and you want to read some kick-ass poems I’ve got just four words for you: Edna St. Vincent Millay. "I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death; I am not on his payroll." Amen, sister. Forget Yeats with his lonely things getting trod by targeted eyes, or whatever. "I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death." Any questions? "Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave/Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;/Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave./I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned." I don’t approve, either, baby.

You know, having finished The Moral Animal by Wright, I don’t know. He ends with a rather too pithy pronouncement on the death of God. I know it’s a little late in the day to argue over this, but if there is a "God Module" in the brain, it must serve a purpose, and what on earth could that purpose be? How does "God" help get those genes into the next generation?

Maybe if you look at the God of Abraham, who instructed his Chosen People to "go forth and multiply," and chastised Onan for spilling his seed, you can see it easily enough. But that’s only one face of God. God The Enforcer. God The Father. But what about God The Son?

Wright believes Jesus and Buddha were all about expanding their own power base. "Appeals to brotherly love," he says, "are comparable to a politician’s self-serving appeals to patriotism." I’m cynical, but I’m not that cynical. Not yet. It’s true, religion can be explained away as an effective form of social control. That’s easy enough. Small and large-scale governing bodies (but especially large-scale ones) have got to legitimize themselves somehow, and for a good chunk of recorded history they (reasonably enough) claimed divine right to rule. Clerics in the Church at the height of its power were not particularly chaste (think Rabelais), never mind the Popes themselves. The Church was a governing Body full-stop. It claimed authority to wage war. It had authority to adjudicate conflicts amongst its subjects, and to punish them. It collected taxes. And it had a vast hierarchy, the forerunner of the modern bureaucracy. Every aspect of life was regulated by the Church. And if knowledge is indeed power, it had a veritable monopoly on both. The idea of the university dates from this time.

My point is that Religion can be easily enough explained. But the yearning for God--does it come as consolation for the intimations of mortality we humans alone among the animals (so far as we know) are privy to?

Wright’s view of the new morality is stark: "We needn’t worry about creeping determinism muting a victim’s rage. But the rage of spectators may wane as they come to believe that, for example, male philandering is 'natural,' a biochemical compulsion--and that, anyway, the wife’s retributive furor is an arbitrary product of evolution. Life--the life, at least, of those other than ourselves, our kin, and our close friends--becomes a movie that we watch with the bemused detachment of an absurdist. This," he concludes, "is the specter of a thoroughly postmodern morality." I agree. Pass the popcorn! No, seriously: as Edna St. Vincent Millay might say, I do not approve.

* * *

I read an article about "Meta" in the Times the other morning, nauseating on any number of levels. It was written by an editor of salon.com who, I am absolutely sure, was an English major in college (I was not, by the way). She delves into the topic like it was the latest craze on the culture scene, when "meta-" has been around for a good quarter of a century--I mean as a commonplace (or "liminal term," as she calls it). But now it’s not "meta-" something it’s simply "Meta." She explains very patiently to an audience she claims is too clever not to know already, what "Meta" is.

"'Meta' is a liminal term these days; it's creeping more and more into everyday conversations, even if it's not nearly as widespread as, say, 'irony.' [Yes, people are dropping that hot term into conversations left and right nowadays--why, I was at this dinner party the other night where it was just ‘irony this’ and ‘irony that,’ seemed like every other word was ‘irony’!] Some people talk about meta all the time. [These are the most interesting people of all.] Recently a friend and I were e-mailing back and forth,trying to sort out our plans to catch an evening movie, when we started to discuss how we were going to make the decision itself--should we stick to e-mail or switch to instant messaging or the phone? 'This is getting too meta,' he wrote. 'Just call me.' [Thoroughly postmodern.] Other people, including another movie-steeped friend, may not recognize the term 'meta,' but they know exactly what it is all the same; on the basis of a quick definition, my friend could instantly list a half-dozen good examples: 'Oh, I get it. Beavis and Butthead was a music-video show about watching music videos, and that teen film Not Another Teen Movie had a character whose only name was the Token Black Guy.'"
Clever friends she has (I am being ironic here, not Meta): "Oh, I get it! Beavis and Butthead, from, like ten years ago! Meta! Thanks for letting me in on that hot new term, dude! I’m gonna use it all day now!" Other examples include "Seinfeld," also a decade old, and the "Nightmare on Elm Street" franchise, over twenty years in the making.

She dwells on a new musical called "Urinetown," which is apparently tres, tres Meta. Get this--this’ll blow your mind--it’s a musical where the characters know they’re in a musical, and they’re always referring to the fact, calling attention to it. It’s, like, a musical that totally mocks musicals. That’s probably why it’s called "Urinetown"! Haw haw haw!

She goes on to give a sweeping survey of metafiction, concluding that early metafiction was didactic, but nowadays people are too smart for that style--it’s not mere familiarity, it’s intelligence we have gained. Readers are smarter now than back when John Barth was starting out. The old guard was "pretty patronizing." Thank goodness "contemporary writers give ordinary people more credit for knowing the difference between real life and playacting."

It’s as if Meta was a law of nature that we have uncovered. As if it always existed in its present perfected form, as if the reason people would not have found it particularly intelligible in another place and time is because they weren’t clever enough then to grasp it, didn’t have the skill to fashion the proper tools.

She has learned that postmodern journalism is all about flattering and pandering to your audience, that’s for sure. Her whole article is a precocious set of winks and nudges. I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know she says, while simultaneously flashing us her vast knowledge of literature and pop culture. We’re clever, we are. See how clever we are. Wink-wink, nudge-nudge.

And all this talk about "ordinary people," and "giving ordinary people credit for knowing the difference" between this and that. She’s obviously trying to ingratiate herself to the ordinary people (or person) reading her article. She gives us a glimpse into her ordinary life, where she supposedly has quirky (mostly male) friends with whom she goes to movies, just like ordinary people! It’s insulting, is what it is.

Ordinary people don’t go round saying things about ordinary people, because ordinary people don’t think they’re ordinary, they think they’re extraordinary. That’s how she gives herself away. By trying to convince us that she’s ordinary she shows us she thinks she’s not, which proves that she is. Yes, ordinary people are clever, all right.

Her seeming assumption that postmodernism was just waiting all these millennia to be discovered by people as clever as us is the same basic assumption Gombrich is trying to discourage in his Story of Art. It’s not exactly that so-called primitive peoples did not have the ability, or innate capacity to achieve realism in art (although they may have lacked the tools), but that they had something else in mind. Realism in art came about when it made sense, and it made sense when it came about. And it was not a matter of IQ. Nor was it inevitable, the final step, the culmination of all knowledge and skill. It is a way of seeing, in John Berger’s term.

Speaking of whom, over the weekend I read a short essay of his from The Guardian. About the newly discovered oldest cave paintings in the world, in Chauvet. He hits the nail on the head:

"Commentators remark with astonishment that the Paleolithic painters knew the rudiments of perspective. When they say this, they are thinking of Renaissance perspective. The truth is that anyone at any time who draws or has drawn, knows very well that some things are nearer and others further away. What changes is how this experience of observing some things coming forward and others receding, is pictorially articulated within the dominant view of what space means. This view changes from culture to culture."

It seems quite obvious, but we often forget it. "Perspective," he concludes, "is not a science but a hope."

Elsewhere in the essay, he says, "the talent to make art accompanies the need for that art; they arrive together." Isn’t the sense that the inverse is also true what has the likes of Jeanette Winterson worried? What does a society with no need for art look like? What do the people act like? Berger gives a clue in his conclusion:

"The Cro-Magnons lived with fear and amazement in a culture of Arrival, facing many mysteries. Their culture lasted for some 20,000 years. We live in a dominant culture of ceaseless Departure and Progress that has so far lasted two or three centuries. Today's culture, instead of facing mysteries, persistently tries to outflank them."

Anybody with eyes to see can see that we are grasping at straws. This young woman, Laura Miller is her name, writing about "Meta," well, she has to write about something, doesn’t she? We can’t just stop simply because we’ve nothing to say, now, can we? There is no generosity in her essay, though, except for the "all knowing, all generous displaying" of sagacity. There is not the healthy curiosity one finds in someone like Berger, someone vastly more knowing, to be sure, than anyone currently writing for salon.com. In Miller’s article she demonstrates an almost pathological fear of being out of the loop, and the necessary display of all her self-referential meta-knowledge serves to show that she is indeed in on the joke. Congratulations, Laura. You have outflanked the mystery again.

But in Berger, who’s a great deal older, no doubt, who is also very much concerned with art and culture, you don’t find any name-dropping, no wink-wink, nudge-nudge whatsoever. He does not pander to the reader. His only assumption is that we are as curious about the questions at hand as he is, and that we can examine them together. There is a simple refinement in his method that is altogether lacking from the loud, mocking style of Miller, our meta-journalist, whose essay is not about anything of particular interest, and who does not intend to persuade anyone (except perhaps her editors) that it is. It is all display.

And though I know I am misappropriating Benet once again, it somehow reminds me of his words: "Such wisdom we had to show:/But now there is merely silence, silence, silence crying/All we did not know."

It is perhaps that silence that fascinates Berger, but scares the shit out of the Millers of the world.

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