12/19/2002

pathetic.com

Dark indeed. The days just go by, one after another, like some very long, but fast-moving freight train. And there I am sitting in my car with the radio all the way up waiting and waiting and waiting for the caboose.

Hmm.

I spent a good part of the day yesterday reading postings from the heterosexuals.com message board. It’s a Canadian site, apparently, that’s been up since 1992, though apparently there have been several attempts to shut it down. It’s a lot of rubbish, really. It’s just the URL that’s sort of controversial.

The premise of the site is "heterosexual pride," basically to combat gay pride. There’s a straight pride site, as well, and both sell T-shirts, but the latter is a much slicker organization than the former. They’ve got a catchy logo and a cause. Apparently the people who started the site have a son in high school, who wore his straight pride shirt to school one day. The administration banned him from wearing it again. The parents sued. The case went to court, and they won the right for their little Elliott to advertise his inadequacies, and more importantly his line of tee-shirts, sweatshirts, mugs, and bumper-stickers, to anyone and everyone interested in exercising their first amendment right to shout from the rooftops how utterly desperate and pathetic they are.

"In essence," someone, probably the kid’s mom wrote on the website, "the decision was carved into stone on January 2, 2002. Because of this victory, a precedent has been set and there now exists solid case law which can be utilized to protect the rights of any other public school student who wears a straight pride sweatshirt. SO BUY UP! We got legal costs to defer because of those closet faggots on the school board trying to push the gay agenda down our throats!" No, I added those last couple of sentences onto the end. It’s actually this very new-age suburban brand of bigotry. Trash isn't just for trailer parks anymore!

You can see that the tee shirts come in a variety of colors with the homophobic logo discretely tucked into our beloved symbol of liberty, freedom and justice for all. All heterosexuals, that is. It’s strange how they use those stick figures you see on the doors of public toilets, though, don’t you think?

I’m just being a nasty little heterophobe.

But, seriously. Who would send their kid to school dressed like this, and what kid worthy of the name would go to school dressed like this? Unless he was getting a cut of the profits?

Heterosexuals.com is a lot rougher round the edges. They have tees, too, but they’re not as nice, and they don’t come in assorted colors. And their method of advertising them is not quite as slick as on straightpride.com, as you can see (bottom left). Here it is modeled in the strip mall parking lot in front of Uncle Enoch’s classic Ford Finkster (oops—almost said Sphincter there!) by the webmaster’s bitch. But if this is Exhibit A of the prosecution’s case, I’m gonna have to plead no contest. Guilty as charged. Clap those shackles on me (better than the old ball-n-chain) and send me off to Leavenworth, where a least I can meet some real men.

Oh, I am dreadful.

I downloaded the messages on the het.com message board from April 2002 to the present. It would have come to about a hundred printed pages, had I printed it up. I have hardly ever participated in an online discussion. A couple of times I’ve been in a chat-room situation, but it was pretty unpleasant, and I didn’t see the point of it. These discussion boards are just as bad, really. I know I’ve mentioned one before—I think it was on the Guardian’s website. You always have some distinct types showing up in these online discussions, all obnoxious in their way, regardless of how innocuous the topic might be. You have a group of people who are just hanging out waiting for someone (usually some one of them) to say something obnoxious so that they can all jump on him and then start bickering amongst themselves. Out of this group you’ve always got the liberal dyke defending the rights of animals, vegetables, and minerals; the condescending representative from the Heritage Foundation, who’s the mirror image of the liberal dyke; and the college wanker who rises to the challenge of mediating a discussion that really has no need of mediation, who’s always interjecting encouragements (like "Jane has a good point, but then so does Ronald" and "I can’t believe everyone is staying on-topic!") and admonitions ("Ronald, you’re off-topic! I don't want to have to tell you again!"). Of these three, and those who hover about them, it is difficult to say who’s the most pathetic, and actually to quibble over it would be to stoop to their level, so better just to issue a sort of blanket condemnation of the whole lot of them.

Then there are those who pop in, offer their two cents, and pop out again. They also come in a couple varieties. It seems to me one type doesn’t read many, or any of the other posts, and another type does, and of this second type there are those who still manage to comment on the topic, while the lion’s share end up commenting on the others who’ve posted comments, who’ve for the most part ceased (despite the self-appointed MC’s interventions) to be commenting on anything even remotely related to the stated topic of discussion. There are those who take sides, and those who condemn everyone, and flee the site in apparent horror at the dregs of hate-spewing humanity they’ve found there.

But in the end hardly anyone who goes to the time and effort to register his opinion, no matter what it turns out to be, can rise above the rabble. Everyone is poisoned by his participation. For the most part it’s a total waste even to read the messages, but I figured I’d skim through just to sort of get my finger on the pulse of the nation.

12/18/2002

Budapest: a day in the life

The market was packed this morning. The combined age of all the customers must have been in the billions, maybe trillions (and it’s not a great, huge place, either). I took the bus to Zuglo again today, and I think by the end I almost OD’d on humanity. I suppose I should have called a cab, but I’m getting back at them for Monday. Plus, I know I didn’t write anything about it, but last time they sent me a very well-heeled driver in a big, beautiful Merc. It had the name of a four-star hotel very discreetly etched in the driver-side door, but otherwise you couldn’t even tell it was a cab. I have to say, he was a bit of a snob, this cabbie—because still, that’s what he was—a cabbie. No use putting on airs like you’re above it. I mean, there’s nothing in the world wrong with it, but you’re no better than your passengers just because you drive a Merc, and maybe they haven’t even got a car.

I sat in the front, which was a mistake this time. I mean the Teuton came to fetch me the time before that, and all I did the whole time was look at his hands and think about his cock. I know just what it’s like, but I’d like to see it just to be double-sure. And he’s so easy-going. Some people—my dad was like this—when they’re silent, you can feel them stewing. It’s a broody silence, full of unspeakable sins and unspoken regrets. And then there’s a peaceful kind of concentrated silence, and that’s how this bloke is. Anyway, I always sit up front with him, because, (a) I get a better view, and (b) the first time I rode with him I didn’t, and he didn’t adjust the seat for me. The boys at the office told me I should always sit in the back seat. When I told them I thought I had offended the Teuton by doing so, they all looked at me like, so what? I mean, who cares if you offend the cabbie? But they don’t know my Teuton. If Claudia Schiffer was their cabbie they’d care. They’d sit up front. Not that he’s the male version of Claudia Schiffer. The kid’s not a supermodel, but I’m willing to bet he’s a good lay, just by the way he drives (he’s a smooth shifter, never grinds the gears). He’s probably a damn sight better driver than Claudia Schiffer, anyway.

So the long and short of it is that I took the bus this morning. It’s nice in a way, if you catch it at the right time, because it’s a good mix of people. It runs through some good neighborhoods, and some not so good neighborhoods, and past a big gimnázium on Thököly út. It was too crowded this morning, though, and several traffic lights were out of order on the way, so there was a big drama at every intersection.

On my way to Moszkva tér to get on the metro, before catching the bus at Astoria, I passed quite a few students on their way to school, as usual. I am getting old. I can see that now. It’s obvious. I mean, I know that when they see me, they’re thinking (in a non-thinking sort of way): that one’s not an us, he’s a them. You want to say, "No! I’m with you! I’m not old! I’m an us, too!" But you know that they would recoil in horror. You’re a them now. Just accept it.

As I walked over the Nos.59/61 tram lines, a boy of, I’d say about fifteen, sixteen, came quite literally flailing past, arms and legs flying off in all different directions. I thought, now, if he were a Them (like me) that whole scene would have been extremely annoying, but because he’s an Us, like we all were once before becoming dreadful, monstrous Thems, it was actually sort of lovely. Then, as if to confirm the hypothesis, a middle-aged man flailed past me on the other side. One of his body parts—what do they say in the cop shows—grazed me. I glared at him. He didn’t even see me. He had that panic in his eyes: "Oh, God! What if I miss my tram! I’ll be late for work again! What will the boss say?!" It’s pathetic. A grown man running for the tram. And if I were a tram driver I would wait until he got right up to the door, and shut it and speed off, just like they always do.

My lesson was nothing special. Nothing new. And when it was over I turned around and headed back the way I came. I have come to think of my walks through the park as "death walks," since that’s what I always end up thinking about. I’m not sure if it’s this particular park, or if I was walking through some other park I would still be thinking about death. Probably.

(later)

The snowball thing has gone from cute and boyish to obnoxious to personally traumatizing. Yesterday I watched as the boys battled each other on the streets below,laughing and gallivanting about as boys do, and it was so boyish, I had to laugh along. Today the snow is soiled, there’s sludge in the street and salt on the sidewalks. The nice, even blankets of snow on the hoods of the cars have been gathered up and used to make missiles, leaving unsightly chunks here and there. At Hosok tere, when my instinct (because of my spill on Monday) was to take a right and stay on the walk, a great group of high school boys was walking that way battling with their fucking snowballs all the while. I knew they would stop if I passed through their midst (or at least I assumed they would), but they would resent me for interrupting their fun, and it would be yet more proof that I was even more of a Them than I already knew I was.

Then I get home, and I’m working on the PC, and I hear a thud outside. I go to the window, and there are three schoolboys (one very fat, another medium, and the third was an absolute fox). They were aiming at a third or fourth floor window, probably just to see if they could hit it. The fat kid was standing back. The other two took aim and fired. I know both the flat above mine and the one above it are empty, or at least the shutters are drawn most of the time. The snow came raining down in front of my window. The beautiful lad was taking aim again, and I waved from the window. He didn’t see me but the fat one did. He waved back. Then he mugged and gave me the thumbs up. I mugged and gave him the thumbs up back. He muttered something to his buddies. The cute one thought better of throwing the snowball. The medium one, who was a real little cunt, seemed to think I was all about spoiling their fun, and I suppose I was. This is the final phase of the transition between an Us and a Them, of course.

Now they were all looking up at me, and he says something to the others while not taking his eyes off me, and the others responded, without taking their eyes off me, either. That was funny. As if, if they took their eyes off me I might launch a counteroffensive or something. I mean, I was in the superior position. But I didn’t have any snow. There’s none on the sill, even. Isn’t that how it always goes?

So they had formulated a plan real quick-like and communicated it to each other in hushed tones while never taking their eyes off me. I knew what it was, though. Ever since attending Madame Tilburina’s Lip-reading seminars in Plovdiv, Bulgarija back in the summer of ’83, I could read their lips from half a kilometer, in a light mist, even if they were facing the opposite direction, no sweat. Plus they’re boys. I mean you don’t have to read their lips, you can read their minds easily enough.

They pretended like they were just going to walk away, but suddenly the little cunt turned and launched his little missile at my window. He had an excellent arm. If it had been open I would’ve had that snowball for lunch. Instead, from behind my glass shield I laughed and laughed. He flipped me the bird (he looked really angry, too), and they all walked off down the street. He was probably calling me buzi-köcsög, and so on. And me standing there in my own window, in my own home. That little cunt has issues, is all I can say.

I rushed straight to the bathroom, to check my hair in the mirror. What a wreck I looked! In about ten years I’ll look just like Keith Richards, all these wrinkles. And I never knew crows had such enormous feet! I can’t believe I stood in my own window looking like that! And with that succulent sixteen year old looking up at me (the cute one didn’t throw anything at my window, by the way, nor did he flip me the bird, or make any rude gestures or faces at me). If that little cunt hadn’t been there, maybe I could’ve leaned out the window and invited the other two up for tea. I could’ve gotten rid of the fat one easily enough—like with Gino, just give him a few forints and send him out for a six-pack. By the time he got back I’d have done his buddy, and I’d have a six-pack to myself for later.

Well, for a few moments I wasn’t sure if I had been traumatized or not. I mean, here I’m just recovering from the last assault on my flat, and have to close the shutters at dusk. Now will I have to leave them like that during the day as well? A flat under siege night and day? From those wretched gimázistas? And here I am right across the street from their headmistress! She might have seen the whole thing! I’m sure she closed her eyes, turned her head, and she’ll go on pretending it never happened. The injustice of it all!

But then I remembered (for I had momentarily forgotten) that I had done more than just stand in the window, noncommittally. I had in a sense launched the first volley with my coy little wave. Yes, it was my fault. All my fault. I had actually waved at the cute one, just as he was about to launch his little missile, and was looking up at my building. But it was the fat one who had seen me (the story of my life) and waved back. And it just got out of hand because of that homophobic little bigot who threw a snowball at me! It was a hate crime! What if I had had the window open? What if I had been struck by that missile? And injured? It could have been fatal! I could have caught pneumonia and died!

Excuse me whilst I go lower the shutters.

That’s better. It’s kind of dark in here, but I feel much safer now.

12/16/2002

of little people and things

Between Zarathustra and the dwarf, I have to say I prefer the dwarf— Zarathustra is all highfalutin theoretical bluster, but the dwarf tells it like it is: ‘“Everything straight lies,” murmurs the dwarf, contemptuously. “All truth is crooked; time itself is a circle.”’

This is what little people are fated to be like, and in this way they are a bit different from animals and objects, which, as has been argued elsewhere, if they are small are to be either indispensable or cute, and if possible both.

One example earlier discussed is the male member. There are ways it can impress one as indispensable, though really it isn’t at all. Mobile phones and wristwatches are indispensable, not penises. One does not need a penis to get by these days. One doesn’t even need one to reproduce. They can be made to seem indispensable, sadly, only when they themselves are formidable and threatening. If they are neither of these things, as most are, they must need be, as defenseless babies in less dainty times, cute—and, I maintain, this is precisely the job of the prepuce. You must admit that the member in the picture (left) brings to mind a napping shar-pei pup, and that rather than recoil, one is inclined to pet it—one’s instinct is to stroke it. Nature is ingenious. She’s full of such mimicry, of course.

So, dwarfs--they cannot be cute like this, though they are small, because they’d come off as grotesque, uncanny versions of children. And they’re obviously no more or less indispensable than ordinary people, who are, on the whole less, not more, indispensable than mobile phones and wristwatches. But neither can they blend in with the general population. They should therefore be contemptuous. It’s the only natural choice.

12/11/2002

art turkeys

Tom sent me an invitation to his exhibition in Amsterdam. I waited a couple days and then sent a thank you, and wished him luck, and asked him to send me photos if he could, since I was still quite curious about what it would be like. I mean, the description in the gallery’s press release he sent wasn’t any more enlightening than his own description of what he would exhibit in the show (called ‘Handle With Care’) was. He wrote: ‘I am showing a body of work based on a video diary. It’s self-portraiture, an artist’s book and three photographs.’ The press release describes the show in the following way:

"In this group show we are asking to reflect on our times, our culture, our lives. What do we have to believe in these days? With so much uncertainty perhaps we need to honour our own humanity. Are we still capable of having true intimacy – that kindredness of body, soul and spirit – with ourselves, with others, and with the planet we share? Do we dare love the unlovable in ourselves, and the failings of others? In this show the artists have given their interpreatations [sic], whether a short film capturing the essence of life according to Aernout O.; a book of self-portraits as a performance by Thomas H.; the uniqueness and humanness of a diverse group of individuals, as captured in Amsterdam street portraits by Eveline R. or a reflection on elements of the natural world in which we all share as shown by Claire B. and others. We invite you to come and see for yourself."

Yes, they know, as everyone does, where the proof of the pudding is. So I was happy when Tom sent me a photo (top left) of part of the installation (I guess that’s what they call it). As you can see, it seems to consist primarily of Tom contorting his face variously. Grimacing for art, you might call it. Though at the risk of sounding cynical I am tempted to ask, ‘but is it art at all?’ I mean, technically I’m sure it is. Actually, it’s a stupid question, I know. It’s like asking if, say, a boiled potato on a plate is a meal. Well, technically, yes. Whether it’s a good, or worthwhile meal is another question. And an admittedly relative one. It might be a tasty meal for someone brought up on a diet of elephant dung (speaking of art), though maybe not as spicy. And for the cook, it might be a triumph, indeed, if, say, we lived in a society that had just stolen fire from the gods. It’s an imperfect analogy, I’ll admit, but instructive when looking at art nowadays. Yes, surely everything in ‘Handle With Care’ is art. You can tell (as with meals) by the packaging.

The thing that gets my goat when I look at this photo is, Jesus, I could do that! I mean, I do do that (bottom left)! Is it art when I do it? And if not, then why not? Do people have to see it in order for it to be art? Is that what it is? John Berger doesn’t seem to think so. I mean, when he visited the caves in Chauvet, he thought: ‘These rock paintings were made where they were so that they might exist in the dark. They were for the dark. They were hidden in the dark so that what they embodied would outlast everything visible, and promise, perhaps, survival.’ But it’s obvious that even in Chauvet the paintings were seen, and probably they were meant to be seen, just not by everyone. And it’s just possible artists have not evolved all that much since the cro mags. Whether or not it’s art probably still has a lot to do with who sees it. (This is what Mark Helprin calls ‘arts turkeys giving arts turkeys to arts turkeys’.)

I know that Tom, if pressed to produce proof of artistic merit (and he would surely preface any argument by saying that this is entirely the wrong approach to art), would at some point have to fall back on the artist’s superior training and equipment. He would also likely argue (in a gentle way) that the subtle qualities that differentiate art from mere artifact are difficult for the untrained eye to see. But that’s OK, actually, because, thank heavens nowadays art is very demotic. Even though only artists really know the internal mechanisms that make art art, they aren’t about imposing their knowledge (or anything else, heavens no) on anyone.

But the less distinguished from other forms of representation (personality, for example, or advertising, which is presumably not pure art on account of its intentions, but can be made into art—voila!—simply by subverting them—through [mis]appropriation, for example, like Warhol did with the soup cans), the more labyrinthine theories of art have become, and the more opaque and incoherent the vocabulary of art artists use to define it (or rather, perhaps, to defend themselves). Yet, there is a certain condescension amongst artist who would like to in a highbrow way argue for the possibility of lowbrow appreciation of their work. This is sort of the Frenák trick, the bluff, and it works on nine out of ten art-victims. The setting is the thing. It used to help to be provocative, like, say Nan Goldin, in your subject matter, but nowadays I think that’s even taking art too far.

Utter banality is much more subtle. After art as outrage and outrage as art, after the shock tactics of eighties art, where the artist set himself apart, art nowadays is about how very ordinary artists are. They are really just like you and me. And to prove it here are a hundred and seventy three snapshots from their family trip to the Adirondacks. Voila! Art!

But it is precisely the mystical quality of art artists are obviously craving. The problem is, just as with music and poetry, formal principles are necessary in art in order to get there. Artists today would like to get there without the formal principles. I mean, despite what anyone says, poetry without meter or rhyme is prose. It’s not a problem, of course, it’s just not poetry.

What was interesting about Tom’s comments on his trip to Rome was how he viewed everything in terms of its emotional impact on him. Of Titian’s Pietà (left), he lamented "There was not enough in me to comprehend him." (But really it was not a lament—it was a kind of false modesty, I hink—he is really saying that he was so sensitive to the brilliance of the work that he could appreciate how little he could actually appreciate it, which shows that he appreciated it more than people who thought they could appreciate it, who obviously could not have grasped the brilliance of it or they would have appreciated how little they could really appreciate it.) The fact that the mystery of the work is reduced in this equation to depth of the personality of the artist is telling.

(The whole passage reads: ‘And then Titian’s Pieta at the Venice Academy, which is the most profound work of art I have ever seen. I felt guilty taking leave of the painting. I turned the corner with an immense sense of loss. There was not enough in me to comprehend him.’)

Personally, this particular work by Titian doesn’t move my heart, although it moves the eye rather ingeniously. His pictures, to quote Gombrich "tended to be more pleasing than moving." It’s abundantly obvious from the complex and precise network of intersecting lines that command the eye here that Titian himself gave a great deal of thought to this most technical aspect of the painting. Whether or not Tom did, I don’t really know.

Titian is usually praised for his mastery of color, but as for colors that fit the particular mood of a pietà, I prefer chiaroscuro. Titian’s version is dull and drab, and though Mary is very pretty, Christ looks like a drunk.

And speaking of chiaroscuro and modeling your Christs after drunks, when I was talking to Csaba about all this he said it was natural to prefer Caravaggio over all the others. Everyone does, after all. And, he suggested, maybe that’s why Tom had to make a big to-do over Titian. To show that he’s an artist and all. But I think calling this picture ‘the most profound work of art I have ever seen’ is being rather too emphatic, even for an artist. I mean, what exactly is he trying to prove?

12/08/2002

a very PETA Christmas

The Guardian reports that PETA will give donated furs to the homeless this Christmas. ‘The charity used to bury or burn the furs but has decided to donate them to people in need - but says it will not force a coat on anyone who objects to wearing a fur on moral grounds.’ With how rabid animal rights activists are in Britain this is a great way to not only get rid of furs, but of homeless people, too, who will be fair game for all manner of abuse when sporting their new rabbit, mink, or polar bear coats. Will they get matching hats, mufflers and stoles, too? The whole thing’s very funny in a way. Now decent folk can flog off all their tacky, morally repugnant attire on the poor. Poor people are so low on the moral food-chain apparently, that they can’t really be blamed for wearing fur like we more spiritually enlightened rich folk can. One PETA representative says: ‘Homeless people are probably the only people who have an excuse not to reject fur outright. People who are cold and have money can buy synthetic materials which don't require them to skin an animal.’ Is this, then, a license for the poor to skin animals? You could carry this logic to an extreme though, couldn’t you? I mean, are the hungry exempt from the taboo against cannibalism? Is this where PETA’s shameless quest for publicity leads us? The poor as walking billboards? As living hairshirts? Is PETA advocating anarchy now? They might just as well be!

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.