Monday, March 17, 2014
Folly's Letter to Mr F.
by Carl Pierer
Dear Mr F.
Your recent book was read with much appreciation and was very well received. It is truly impressive that you manage to translate a foreign author's essays with such accuracy and close attention to his many plays on words. Yet, as a native Austrian, your annotations and commentaries are the more valuable. Indeed, their meandering and digressing nature breathes life into those articles. Witty explanations mixed with your own experiences and brief autobiographical sketches help to understand a complex writer and to see his relevance. But praise has been manifold and you are probably very well aware what great contribution you have made with this book. This letter is addressed to you because your book prompted many questions. Most of them are very closely linked to the topic of the book, but a substantial minority is as digressing as your own commentaries. Certainly, the idea you put forward that a writer cannot possibly desire a completely egalitarian society due to its lack of linguistic differences is fascinating and harbours an explosive potential for controversy. Your other arguments to the quality of writing and your drawing of parallels between turn of the century feuilletonists and modern bloggers stimulate reflection. Still, none of these kept your devoted reader wide awake at night. More troubling than these are your implicit characterisations of what makes a good novelist. This should rather read: implicit mentioning of which characteristics a good novelist displays. Your own biography and those of many other writers seem to suggest that the youthful author should struggle with his fate, they should be submerged in the search for their self and isolation. Yet, even if we accepted this, it is far from evident that the other direction of implication should work as well. If a young person begins to ask the first questions about themselves and about their identity, it does not immediately follow that these questions put to paper will make for readable literature. Instead, they might commit the error of abusing art to assert a self they want to be.
This line of reasoning seems to have a strong pull. To write is to be cool. And what is cooler than to depict (and live) a solitary man's struggle with the world around him? Isolation and prophetic cynicism are perceived as cool. Simultaneously a sort of nihilism and defiance can be adopted. Akin to the Eastwoodian anti-hero, the self they aim at is a more refined and less moral protagonist. While eating their fire-roasted beans, they polish their "designed in California"-weapon. Its smooth aluminium enclosure equips the lonesome soldier with just the right cutting-edge fashion in their Mexican standoff with evil and society. In one of your early footnotes, you analyse precisely this feature of the cultivated Apple: "Isn't the essence of the Apple product that you achieve coolness simply by virtue of owning it? It doesn't even matter what you're creating on your MacBook Air. Simply using a MacBook Air, experiencing the elegant design of its hardware and software, is a pleasure in itself, like walking down a street in Paris."
The temptation to slip into back patting self-affirmation of the young author's existential hermitism is well depicted in Male Novelist Jokes. The fact that these jokes take the form of low-brow amusements (How many x does it take to do y) stands in stark contrast with their smart but scorching sarcasm. However, their formal kinship with all too familiar misogynistic, racist or otherwise discriminating jokes, parallels the young male author's laddism. For instance, the following makes use of all of these elements:
Q: How many male novelists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
A: "The cocaine isn't the point. The cocaine is a metaphor," he explained wearily over the pile of cocaine. She folded her arms. She didn't understand his cocaine. "Didn't you read my manifesto?" The prostitute had read his manifesto. Why couldn't she?
Male Novelist Jokes ridicule this attempted or forced isolation lived by would-be poets. The jokes illustrate the utter ludicrousness of emoting common human flaws and construing them as an expression of profundity and sophistication. They decry the author's assumed enlightened position as egocentric ignorance of other humans. The arrogance transported in the novelist's writing, the idea that the author is completely on his own with his grasp of the existential abyss, is mockingly exaggerated. Indeed, the writers might very well have understood a profound existential truth, but they fail to acknowledge their own, their proper absurdity. Instead, they make a huge leap in reasoning. Their assumption that everything except for their own behaviour is pointless, ridiculous and foolish is a self-contradicting fallacy. Why should they have sipped from the holy grail of existential authenticity, whereas the rest of the world does not understand the first thing?
But this problem is embedded in a wider context. The same concept of following an idea or of incorporating someone for the sake of deriving coolness is the meaning of "hipster". No one ever is a "hipster," the term is used purely as an insult. In a particular niche of young, student leftist individuals, it singles out the would-be few. A true hipster dresses in outdated, unfashionable clothes to demonstrate that she is cool and can move beyond fashion. She has transcended fashion. The "hipster" in contrast reverses this implicational arrow. He moves beyond fashion, dresses like the hipster, and is therefore cool. The fact that "hipster" became an accepted insult shows that this implication does not hold. Instead, the hipster's mockery turns upon the "hipster" himself. While the hipster exposed fashion, the "hipster" makes a fool of himself.
Now, even the most eloquent of my panegyrics failed to make mention of my first and foremost deed. This, I believe, will make it more understandable why I am addressing this letter to you. Even though Erasmus showed most of my disguises, he forgot to depict my purest nature. Take off my many robes and behold from henceforth, all generations shall call me silly. As I stand thus, the fool can see his own reflection when he venerates me. He comes before my altar and lies down his offering. He realises his own foolishness, and with a smirk mutters: "Just a man, like you." Silliness renders him human. Instead of dreaming of the pursuit of his individuation, he laughs at the individual he wanted to be. No longer does he need to instantiate himself. And this is exactly where the Male Novelist and the "hipster" go wrong.
Similarly, your book sketches a more sinister being. A writer obsessed with himself, all too keen on accomplishment and reputation. While these certainly are of great importance, as I do acknowledge, they commit exactly the above mentioned fallacy. Yet, you paired these with a keen awareness of the aim's silliness. Thus, I think, you have shown the way to escape the fallacious grips.
To avoid the fallacy of mistakenly reversing implications, to withstand the temptation of self-righteous contempt, I advocate this dress of mine. It guards against the lone cowboy riding into the sunset of his own making. For he fails to see his own folly, his proper absurdity. "Is it possible for humanity to be so utterly blind? He who has the hundred eyes of Argus to spy out the faults of his brother—can he be so totally blind to his own?" In desperation he clutches to a faint idea of seriousness. Whether would-be poet or "hipster", these are but poor and funny attempts at outward sincerity. Could they only see their own silliness, they would clearly perceive the logical error they have committed. But because they conceive of themselves as being serious, as grave and as important, they fall victim to the absurd. If they did embrace my cloth, they would not fall prey. Because then they would cease to write their stories for those whom they despise. Rather they would laugh at themselves for being silly, instead of pouring scornful criticism on everyone around them in their self-loving manner. They would stop thinking literature can absolve them. They would not try to turn themselves into an idol to be worshipped as a pillar of insight.
They would start caring about the art they allegedly admire. Similarly, "hipsters" could soon become hipsters, would they but lose the inverted commas they have put on.
Thus, the earnest and sincere picture you draw of the novelist might apply to some. A number of them can be good writers and still struggle with the existential. But to take up arms in a youthful frenzy to earn literary war medals leads to early death in the trenches. Instead of admiring his uniform appearance, the new conscript shall be very conscious of his silly dress. Laughingly, he should support the common cause. Personally, I hope that you at the home front will support our silly opposition to this jingoism.
To paraphrase my great devotee: farewell. Be jolly, live long, and drink deep, most illustrious votary of mine,
Posted by Carl Pierer at 01:15 AM | Permalink