In me, by myself, without human relationship, there are no visible lies. The limited circle is pure.
–Franz Kafka, August 30, 1913
As I mentioned before, I write a media column for London alternative newspaper Snipe . I’d sort of forgotten about writing this column, but reading it back, I quite like it, and repost it here to prove that, despite my incessent bitching about the evils of the media, sometimes there’s good stuff too — and I don’t even mind admitting it.
For the most part, the media consists of slick sales-pitches. It wants us to buy something, believe someone, serve somebody. Occasionally, however, a piece comes along that offers more than platitudes and does more than prescribe. These magical little moments occur when, and where, they are least expected. Recently, I picked up the October issue of Red for a swift goggle at Vanessa Paradis and came across ‘Why Giving Up Is Good To Do’. A brief, but imminently sensible article critiquing the notion that whatever it is you’re doing, you have to keep doing it till the bitter end. Author Anna Pursglove’s remark that: “The sky… does not fall in when you admit that you never should have done it in the first place or that it worked for you once, but doesn’t any more,” was exactly what I needed to read at that moment.
Other chance encounters have radically altered my way of thinking, have given shape to half-formed ideas, thrown me a life-line. Once, for no good reason I can remember, I bought a copy of Hello! There, in a very small column, lay a quote that still echoes in my head. Tilda Swinton, when asked “Do you take life as it comes or do you try to arrange it actively?” responds: “There are only two questions in life: ‘Who am I?’ and ‘How shall I live?’”
Those few words flashed like neon amidst the pages of consumerist nonsense and celebrity gossip. That was the first, and I think the only, time I’ve seen a philosophical question on the pages of a weekly glossy. I tore out the page, folded it up and stuck it next to my passport; it comes out when I start to drown in details need to be reminded that ultimately life is a creative act of self-definition.
Interviews can offer sublime moments. American style mag BlackBook ran a Q&A with Chrissie Hynde that has become a fixture in my scrapbook. In it, the great Pretender levelled on the ridiculousness of competitive consumer culture, saying: “I left the States when I was 22 [because] I saw that I was going to be trapped into buying a car so I could get to work so I could pay for my car, and I thought, that’s not for me.” Later, she remarks: “I just tread my path and stick to the plan. And if anyone wants to come along and be part of it, that’s fine, and if they don’t, fair enough. I’ve never left my philosophy to join someone else’s.” Hallelujah. “I just tread my path and stick to the plan,” is a sentiment worth digging through hundreds of hair tips and restaurant reviews to find.
Media is in a bind. The more people are exposed to radical ideas about self-realisation, creativity and shunning consumerism the less likely they are to spend time and money to gawp at TV presenters and philandering footballers. Luckily, media can be delightfully self-defeating. The powers that be want to sell, sell, sell (ad space, ideology, whatever) but they sometimes do good despite themselves.
Channel 4’s Faking It is a case in point. Though it unapologetically light entertainment, it conveyed the message that—given determination and the proper training—anyone can do almost anything. The sugary reality TV format coated the sharp political truth that most people are constrained not by inherent inadequacies, but by social and educational opportunity.
Ultimately, for all its absurdities, media can still be transcendent. There is a line in my favourite book—Franny & Zooey—in which the narrator refers to: “the rising of a truth, fragmentary or not, up through what often seemed to be an impenetrable mass of prejudices, clichés, and bromides.” Such moments of truth are rare in the popular press, but thankfully not yet extinct.
I think we ought to read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading doesn’t wake us up with a blow on the head, what are we reading it for? …we need the books that affect us like a disaster, that grieve us deeply, like the death of someone we loved more than ourselves, like being banished into forests far from everyone, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.
– Franz Kafka, Letter to Oskar Pollak
Life could become one long dim scramble just to get the things needed to keep alive. And the confusing point is this: All useful things have a price, and are bought only with money, as that is the way the world is run. You know without having to reason about it the price of a bale of cotton, or a quart of molasses. But no value has been put on human life; it is given to us free and taken without being paid for. What is it worth? If you look around, at times the value may seem to be little or nothing at all. Often after you have sweated and tried and things are not better for you, there comes a feeling deep down in the soul that you are not worth much.
— Carson McCullers
People who are just starting out are always sort of coming to me for advice as the example of “independent girl,” and lots of people ask, well, how did you get the booking agent or the national distribution or the tours? And I look at them like, “Good lord! Relax!” I mean, how I did it was to not care about it and to not even think about it for years and years. All I thought about was getting the next little gig in the little bar, and I get this sense that people want me to give them the secret formula or the magic trick to make it all happen. I think low expectations are really useful, and a lot of patience. — Ani DiFranco
(from Mother Jones)
Okay, so this is the second quote of the day today, but it’s because I forgot to put one up yesterday. If I hadn’t forgotten, this is what I would have posted (from The Old Man and the Sea)
Perhaps it is just a noise such as a man might make, involuntarily, feeling the nail go through his hands and into the wood. – Ernest Hemingway
[If] you got him for one day, man… that one day better be your life. You can cry about the other three-sixty-four but you’re gonna lose that one day. That’s all you got, you gotta call that love… if you’ve got it today, you don’t wear it tomorrow.
Back to James Baldwin and Another Country:
Most people had not lived… through any of their terrible events. They had simply been stunned by the hammer. They passed their lives thereafter in a kind of limbo of denied and unexamined pain.
Denied and unexamined pain seems to be the actual, if not explicitly stated, goal of our culture. Unhappiness is pathologised to the point of absurdity and you can get hardcore pharmaceuticals for everything from shyness to fear of flying. And that’s before dipping into the thousand other heavily marketed strategies for divorcing ourselves from sensitivity to genuine emotion. Books and magazines tell us how to overcome our negative thoughts, put the past behind us, discover our fitter, happier, more productive inner self. Surgeons offer us the body of our dreams and make-up counter assistants show us how to brighten tired eyes and exaggerate forced smiles. And then there’s shopping: the ultimate antidote to what ails us; the chance to purchase joy with rectangles of flexible plastic.
Examining pain is socially suspect. Acknowledging that there are some things beyond the reach of the power of positive thinking or retail therapy is sacrilege. Yet if we don’t ask, how can we understand? I suspect Baldwin was familiar with this passage from Montaigne:
The effect of an affliction, when extreme, must of necessity be to turn the whole soul and hinder its freedom of action; so it happens that, when alarmed by a piece of very bad news, we are seized, paralysed, and as it were crippled in our movements, until the soul, after melting into tears and lamentations, appears to disengage and unravel itself, and become more at ease and free to act.
Tears and lamentations are not just a symptom of sadness; they are an essential part of the process of working through the hammer-blows. Without them, our souls stay frozen and crippled, chained to a solid block of silence. Nevertheless, we are reluctant to weep and rend our garments. In part because there is no socially acceptable way to do so; and, perhaps, because we are afraid we won’t know when to stop. The lifetime habit of silence, suppression, smiling and saying “fine” when people ask “how are you?” makes us afraid to let go. Afraid to open a Pandora’s box. The cultural imperative to be happy reinforces this neurosis, and causes us to nurture a strange selfishness. We think, innocently, that our trauma is unique. We feel condemned as freaks for feeling it at all. Locked up tight, we scorn our hurt and that of others. How can we grieve for anyone else if we will not grieve for ourselves?
From The Old Man and The Sea
It is better to be lucky. But I would rather be exact. Then when luck comes you are ready.
One doesn’t expect out of life what one has already learned that it cannot give
— Vincent Van Gogh