Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Nothing Butt the Truth

Some years ago, a guy told me (unsolicited) why we could never date. I was, in his opinion, “going around living like life is the last twenty minutes of Benny & Joon.” A few years before that, someone else – I think it was Chris Mitchell – mapped my life in a way not contradictory, as “the first five minutes of a porno scene.” And, while I dismissed them actively at the time, these labels do demonstrate some value in sorting the aspects of my daily and continual existence. A sense of perpetual closure and easy transition between scenes and solutions? Sure. What about, a frisson of knowing excitement in close variations on generic scenarios? Or, played dialogue with oblique subtexts, inevitabilities foreseen but kept just out of reach by that five-minute rule?

Sure. I’ll buy that, and why not? It would not be surprising to discover that my life is unnecessary except for a narrative to achieve it’s point that has a point, that my life is the building of familiar, learned veracity. Do I not feel the weight of a greater audience than myself, in all doings, at all moments, just as surely as characters in a porn scene would, had they the necessary level of self-awareness?

Is that how Joon – not Mary Stuart Masterson, but Joon – works out the climax and denouement of Benny & Joon, perhaps? A small glimpse of awareness, a grander perspective for just long enough to realize she has to play crazy but not so crazy she can’t get together with Johnny Depp in Buster Keaton drag and have that keen apartment. It’d work. It would. But, maybe that is a little too close to freewill.

An approximation to freewill is the only reason I can think of, that approaches remotely rational, for our recurrent cross-cultural concern with preserving a veil of irony to fictions. Fictions must not be knowing, authors should be discouraged from being sardonic, and we must clap for Tinkerbell, that is our role.

Let’s go back to porn for a moment. A frequent trope of contemporary porno, a quick google around makes it clear, is the playacting of a hire. Sexy youths of all walks require money and in these scenarios, they will be promised such – though not always given it, in the end – in exchange for sex, degradation, and their time. They need money to support drug habits, to buy shoes at the mall; they’ll even bang for books for school. Now, step back and remember, if we’re talking video porn, this is a set of actors going through the motions of a scripted story. These are professional actors, in other words, people who are being paid money to do this. But that reality, it seems, in ill-fitted, it is not part of the story no matter how true, and we need our true stories.

Walter Allen, a rather educated, knowledgeable man, spends much of his The English Novel discounting or belittling any novel that happens to acknowledge its untruthfulness, its artifice. Vanity Fair is a weak work, apparently, because its nearly-omniscient, and opinionated, narrator shares a joke with the reader every so often, and on occasion, actively disagrees with the author. It is important, for Allen, that the novel stand apart from its author, in terms of perspective and politics, but it is not the thing to make a production out of it.

By and large, we traditionally, and consistently, do not wish our fictions to be spelled out as such for us. We want to pretend from beginning through ending, forever and ever, that there is not a semblance of actuality, but truth and history, in there. Authors cannot pause the narrative to interject; no, that is bad form. Plot cannot reveal itself as a series of engineered and overlapping contrivances. Characters should never understand their characterness, their existence as roles and agglomerations of aspects and tics. Why else, would Shakespeare’s divine As You Like It so frequently be maligned as a jest in bad taste, a work designed to appease the ignorant or the unhealthily minded populace, because its narrative and its principle role acknowledge their artifact nature? Why does the novel, at least in English, run screaming with its fingers in its ears, from the developments of Tristram Shandy? Or, the Realism come to mean, by way of Balzac, a conglomeration of stereotypes, learned tropes, and anticipated superstitions?

Well, for one thing, it is often apparent that arguing with superstitions is futile, so what better mode of communication, what better strings to pull to get those marionettes up and dancing so realistically, than tethers that cannot be cut? We all know what they say about redheads, and why, there must be some reason behind it, if everyone says it and everyone knows what is said.

We retreat, not more deeply, perhaps, but certainly with repetition, to familiarities, to fairytale existences where existentialism and ennui are unacknowledged with a severity that may as well erase them. It is the short-term memory required of happy pioneering, that act of aggressive homesteading that is, by alternate perspective, theft and active displacement of whatever and whomever previously occupied this new comfortable space. Stories that blatantly cannot have happened, or that are incredibly unlikely, become uncomfortable, so that, no matter how entertaining, no matter how often we revisit, say, the story of the Trojan War or the Time Machine, the cheating of the Devil or a contract with God, we maintain a civilized pretense that these entertainments mean less than the very serious entertainments of how our social politics are reflective of innate truths and doing as Momma and Poppa taught you will be a yardstick of mores good enough for thriving in any decent society.

Nonsense, spontaneity, speculation or reexamination, these come too close to producing self-awareness, self-acknowledgement of the artifice that so many layers of practiced, and forever taught, veracity are meant to obscure, put down like golden fleece over the audience’s eyes, not only, then, to obscure, but to lull the audience in forgetting to even be concerned with what may be hidden. The authenticity of our fairy stories is a set of blinders that make us forget we ever saw what they hide.

It is this room for an anamnesis that allowed Post Modernism to appear, yes, Post Modern. It let Modernism seem tethered to a time. It permits us to think of our own culture and locale as contemporary, while some other corner of the globe is considered older, younger, futuristic or historic. How, we can speak of pre-Columbian for virtually everywhere but where Columbus came from. What gives life to recurrent stereotypes, creating neighborhoods out of social stories and imaginary nations from rampant orientalism.

It impractically behooves an author, an actor, a painter or poet, then, to assault this veneer in violent or teasing ways, however can be managed, without losing the audience altogether, for the betterment of our maturation as a whole. No, seriously. It is one thing to grow into perspective, see that Santa Claus is a learning tool about the exchange of goods as an act of goodwill (cookies and milk for presents, natch) not necessarily a requirement, certain behavioral codes and records of good and criminal acts; that he is an inspirational figure, and also, an entertainment. So we perpetuate the myth with another generation who have not achieved the metatextual awareness we now possess. It is something else, something that can only be considered a detriment, if our playacted acknowledgement of Santa Claus remains so entrenched, so seriously lain out, that we cannot ever vocalize, nor even intimate minutely, the fictive nature of the construct.

This is the defective thinking that leads people to actively preserve the myths of a historic figure over an accurate portrayal of them, because they don’t want to lose a hero, even if that hero never existed, or is simply the lionizing of a horrible moral mutant. The need for the fairytales to be treated as truth grows so intense, so all-consuming, that accuracy must bend to their truth. Christopher Columbus cannot be a genocidal gold-chasing thief with messianic pretensions! The Pilgrims, those Puritans, cannot have traveled to North America and perpetrated acts of aggression, cruelty, repression and, again, genocide; the third graders have to play dress up as those people and the Indians! And why can’t it be a nice happy meal together with centuries of friendliness to follow, instead of death and displacement, if that makes for a happier grade school reenactment? Why can’t the little mermaid have a happy ending? What’s this about changing meanings? Why shouldn’t fairies be small and powerless? Who cares if it comes out of a racist tradition? It’s not sexist, it’s just in fun, and anyway, those are real differences!

This Summer, I listened to a little girl tell her mother, both in black slacks and flowery shirts, about an exercise in school, where the boys dressed like girls and the girls, like boys. “The boys all wore dresses, Mama,” she said, “and we, well, I wore pants.”


Anonymous said...
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tva said...

Very nice. Picking at self-awareness for the willfully unaware is a duty of the writer, yes? Thanks, Travis.

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