1/28/2006

Six Million Little Pieces?

In one of those strange nexuses so common in the jumble of our pop culture, the brouhaha over the “truthiness” of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces happened to coincide roughly with the 61st anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and Oprah’s announcement that the next selection from her popular book club would be Elie Wiesel’s Night. I don’t know if the James Frey story, which smoking gun broke on January 10th, prompted the announcement a week later that Night would be her next book club selection. I hope not. But while the two are not in any way comparable or connected but by the magic of Oprah, they have now been linked in nearly every newspaper and media outlet by everyone from New York Times media critic Frank Rich to bubbly anchorblonde Andrea Jackson on “The Morning Buzz”.

MSNBC reported last week that the problem with Wiesel’s book has been opposite the trouble with Frey’s: while A Million Little Pieces is fiction wrongly categorized as memoir, many retailers have erroneously classified Night, a holocaust memoir, as fiction. They are now scrambling to correct the error.

I think Night can survive Oprah, but I’m not sure how it fits in with her plan for world domination. With the Frey flap behind her, she can now point piously to a stark, unadulterated and above all true memoir by the tireless Wiesel, well-deserving recipient of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize. But can you imagine Oprah interviewing Wiesel on her show? Questioning him in that mawkish daytime talk show way that she herself pioneered? Flipping her big hair and dabbing away alligator tears as she looks into the camera to say “we’ll be right back after this commercial break.”

The problem with this pop-synergy is that Wiesel’s devastating memoir, unlike Oprah’s circus sideshow, is not only true, but utterly, unrelentingly, brutally true. For a woman who has basically branded, boxed, and sold sentimentality for the bulk of her career, I’m not sure what, aside from cynical face-saving, she hopes to accomplish with Night. We know Oprah chose Frey’s “memoir” because it had the melodrama, the silly hyberbole, and the sugarcoated ending we’ve come to expect from Oprah herself. It was the sentimental version of the survivor’s story, always easily enough identified as fiction. Sentimentality obscures the truth. In fact, sentimentality is an escape from truth.

There is an interesting phenomenon in highly affluent Western societies today, and we can see it in both the ex-communicated Frey and his former high priestess, Oprah. Perhaps because we know, implicitly, that our "standard of living," when compared to developing and third world countries is flat-out obscene, we find ourselves exaggerating our personal plight, however we conceive of it. For Oprah it was her weight problem, and race, and sexual abuse. For Frey it was his variously and wildly exaggerated addictions.

I have met people who have opened up at the least provocation, often without invitation, about all manner of trials and tribulations they have been through. The narrative usually ends the same: I’m a survivor. But it does no good to be a survivor without any particular adversity to have survived. I mean, “I survived being made fun of in high school for wearing braces and headgear”; “I survived not making the cheerleading squad”; “I survived growing up in suburbia”; “I survived a vacation in the third world without my Starbucks”; and “I survived without my cell phone for a weekend” just don’t cut it. Especially in a world where there is real evil, where women are raped en mass and they and their babies are hacked to death with Machetes, people are thrown in jail and left to rot for typing the wrong words “human rights” into their google search, a world of secret prisons and torture. A world where children are bought and sold, and work in sweatshops for pennies a day to make your sneakers. So you snack too much while you sit on your ass in front of the boob tube watching it all. Well, manage it.

We live in a victim culture, for sure. And it’s not just bleeding heart liberals and their minority minions doing the whining. From Catholics to Born-Agains, the right has embraced the culture of victimization, too. Our movie stars all have tales of tribulation. Our politicians routinely play the victim. Bush was a victim of bad intelligence, a victim of the liberal media, a victim of Democratic slander. Hillary sees a vast rightwing conspiracy with working class Americans as its target and her in the bull’s-eye.

While the priest abuse scandal is based in unfortunate fact, you have only to look at the eleventh-hour accusations against Gene Robinson, the first openly gay Bishop of the Episcopal Church, to see how easily abused the idea of “abuse” has become (From the report by Bishop Scruton of Western Massachusetts--the italics are mine:

“Canon Robinson put his left hand on the individual's arm and his right hand on the individual's upper back as he listened to his questions and answered them. This incident was in public view and was brief. The individual said Canon Robinson answered his questions and spoke no inappropriate words…. [L]ater in the convocation, while the two were standing in proximity… the individual turned to Canon Robinson to make a comment. In response, Canon Robinson touched the individual's forearm and back while responding with his own comment.”

I use this example not to downplay the real abuse, but to point out the desperate measures some are driven to take just so they can claim victimization, and, presumably, the righteousness that comes with fighting back. Our survivor narrative is obviously very often tied to our victimization narrative. Oprah’s much publicized weight problem, which she has finally overcome (though he’s still got a hair problem) was tied to sexual abuse she suffered as a child.

But what if your life really wasn’t all that bad? What if, really, all you can complain about is having to drive a beater to high school and not getting all the pussy you thought you deserved? Or that you had a big nose and your folks wouldn't pay for rhinoplasty? Frey kind of falls into this category, and his memoir typifies the desperate, degenerate search for a personal trauma trashy and flashy enough to have survived, and thus beef up the old hardship résumé:

“I want a drink. I want fifty drinks. I want a bottle of the purest, strongest, most destructive, most poisonous alcohol on Earth. I want fifty bottles of it. I want crack, dirty and yellow and filled with formaldehyde. I want a pile of powder meth, five hundred hits of acid, a garbage bag filled with mushrooms, a tube of glue bigger than a truck, a pool of gas large enough to drown in. I want something anything whatever however as much as I can.”

In much of the world people are clawing and scratching to claim their humanity from forces of evil marshaled against them. But here where we have for the time being subdued the urge of men to enslave each other—we live in what Slavoj Zizek has called a “liberal-permissive” society—we’re so busy inventing torments for ourselves we can’t see the reality of the torments others are enduring, sometimes on our account. Instead ofcounting our many blessings and working to eliminate the suffering of others much less fortunate we’re searching in painful earnest for some source of suffering for ourselves.

Now granted, pain is radically subjective. Empathy only goes so far—no one can really feel your pain. I mean, watching someone having their fingernails ripped out is just not the same as having them ripped out yourself. People suffer in free and affluent societies, it’s true, but the things they suffer from are more often objectively bearable than what people suffer in poverty under tyranny. People in western democracies on the whole live lives more bearable than those subject to dictatorial or totalitarian regimes. Of course everyone suffers. That’s the human condition. But those of us who experience less suffering can in the best circumstances transcend our own suffering and actually see that others suffer more.

Instead of doing this—which if we can we must—here we are inventing trials and tribulations in the hopes of at least appearing to have suffered more ourselves (and certainly to have overcome our invented adversities). Partly this is boredom, the fruit of decadence. But it’s probably slightly more complex.

My theory is this tendency to exaggerate to a ludicrous, obscene degree our own misfortunes, and to display a badge of courage for overcoming them is a kind of guilt reaction to the genuine suffering we see every day beamed into our homes via satellite. It is abstract, yes, but it is out there. It’s really happening. We can turn it off, but it’s not going away. I may be mistaken in my belief that human beings are empathic by nature. But I think no matter how much of it we learn to stifle to get by in society, there is always a kernel of empathy, and that’s what’s causing the reaction.

It's like Niebuhr says in The Irony of American History (my poolside reading last week): "There are irresolvable contradictions between prosperity and virtue, and between happiness and the ‘good life’…. The discovery of these contradictions threatens our culture with despair.”

The funny thing is, when you go abroad, and you meet people who have survived real horrors, from state terror to terrorism, from civil war to the gulag, you will find that they don’t bang on about it self-indulgently. And that’s how you know the truth of the tribulations they have survived. Sentimentalism is a substitute for depth of emotion, when there is no depth of experience to refer to. We want to suffer, because we know that suffering is essential to our humanity. But when you are actually suffering—really suffering, particularly at the hands of others, or of circumstances well beyond control or comprehension, the last thing you are doing is wallowing in it.

Elie Wiesel doesn’t emerge from the death camps “a new man”. There was no Auschwitz makeover. He came out a living corpse, his humanity systematically stripped from him. He doesn't glory or wallow in it, as Frey does his invented turmoils. There is no heroic end. There is no Hallmark moment. Nothing is all right. Ever. I’d like to see how Oprah spins that one.

1 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you think Elie Wiesel doesn't seek glory you should talk to some Holocaust survivors. Almost all of them say he's profited greatly from the Holocaust. In fact, when asked to speak at the funeral of a Holocaust surviver, Wiesel couldn't do it unless a speaking fee was given. And boy oh boy, doesn't Wiesel love that George W. Bush! He is the Jewish cheerleard from the war in Iraq, but as a typical rightwing hypocrite, he wouldn't want his son Elisha going off to war in Iraq even though it's a "noble cause". Wiesel will hopefully have his hair weave cleaned up before going on Orpah.

6:42 PM  

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