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Monday, January 12, 2009

In Defense of Greatness, Against Psychology

What do Michael Jackson, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Moulin Rouge, and George Lucas have in common? None is allowed by contemporary tastes to be great. I could write a hundred blogs on the destructiveness of our craven tendency towards the psychologistic reduction of human beings, bearing in mind that it is not so much psychology but its practitioners that are so stagnant. Today I want to talk about two all-too-common words of judgment vis-à-vis great authors, thinkers, singers and great beings in general: motives and needs. In an essay on confessions within autobiographies, Stephen Spender argues that we are uncomfortable with too much information in autobiography, because we are afraid of the inherent danger of the inner life of human beings. “The antidote was once the Church. Today it is the vast machinery of psychological analysis and explanation.” Right on, Spender. Except that he himself attempts to locate an antidote to the greatness of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, earlier in the essay, by writing off Rousseau’s courageous honesty and inclusiveness in the Confessions as a confessional need to absolve oneself with the public.
And there’s the rub. We don’t trust ingenuous. We don’t trust sincerity. We certainly don’t trust great motives. In fact, the very use of the word ‘motive’ belies our need to find reasons other than the one proffered by the author. In many cases, this is a good idea. But I am dismayed by the current need to write off anyone and everyone who announces their high ideals as having ‘ulterior motives’. It used to be we dealt with our inferior ambition, will and commitment in various healthy ways (heroic striving to be like them) and unhealthy ways (self-loathing, apathy, class consciousness). Currently, a ridiculously unhealthy way reigns: impugning the motives of anyone who seems ‘suspiciously’ pure-hearted.
And so the reaction of my classmates to Rousseau, who announces on the first page of his Confessions: “I have never put down as true what I knew to be false…”, and resolves to present a true, unflinching portrait of one man—himself. My classmates scoff: no way he’s telling the truth. Spender the lit critic scoffs as well: “There could be no better example of this secret motive of the human heart than the opening pages of Rousseau’s Confessions.” Really? I could think of 1,000 better examples. Does anyone want to take pause and wonder if maybe Rousseau has a true socio-political agenda here? Maybe he believes absolute honesty will further the human understanding. After all, this is a man who wrote one tome about revolutionizing the education of children and another about revolutionizing the state. I remember when my ex-wife resolved to say it out loud whenever her experience of date rape popped into her mind, as a form of political resistance against the marginalization of the body and its violations into the pure realm of ‘subject matter’ or ‘lessons’ or ‘principles’ instead of real facts and real stories about real people. About a lot of people. About the woman you work with. And yet there in the work place, and many other places, she was accused of ‘trying to get attention’ (the most banal of our current crop of knee-jerk, passive-aggressive, psychologistic faux-analyses), or vanity. The same thing happened to my current wife when talking about her high school bulimia. And myself when talking about my prison time. In fact, anywhere I go, anywhere I read or watch, those who tell the truth are subjected to this facile impugning of motives. I call Rousseau’s decision to write about his sexual fetish for punishment and his kleptomania, especially coming from a respected political philosopher, courageous and revolutionary. Honesty itself is revolutionary.
Let’s look at a contemporary example: Michael Jackson, whom even respectable media outlets
feel justified in referring to as ‘Jacko’ in the midst of so-called serious reporting. Michael Jackson gave absurd amounts of money to charity, spent absurd amounts of time trying to stop the suffering of children, and wrote absurdly sincere songs about such suffering. We all felt guilty that we were writing or listening to “Don’t You Wish Your Girlfriend Was Hot Like Me” or another song about ‘me’ or ‘you’. So, as Bono said in dedicating U2’s “Bad” to Michael Jackson, he was pronounced guilty by all the moment he was accused. Only an artist as sincere as Michael Jackson could inspire such hatred for having a llama and a monkey among his friends, let alone being accused of pedophilia by gold-digging, guilty parents. Captain Eo was ostensibly scorned because it was cheesy to fight evil by dancing with animals in a flashy suit. I say it was scorned because the implication of dancing one’s way to justice reminded people of their own distance from the life-affirming joy that Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, in Multitude, calls essential to revolutionary change.
Then there’s Baz Luhrman, whose style could be described as the antidote to cynicism. This was barely tolerated in Moulin Rouge, mostly buoyed by its appeal to the musical-loving demographic, but it ultimately sunk his recent Australia. What was wrong with Australia? No irony, no cynicism, nothing but big ideals, big heroics, big love, aligned against big business. As with Michael Jackson, once a work of art disallows us the ironic detachment of a nihilistic actor eating a hamburger in a Carls Jr. commercial (“Don’t talk to me, I’m eating”), we are left with its naked and bare commitment to its own principles. Often this means its politics. Michael Jackson has politics. Rousseau has politics. Luhrman has politics. The American tendency to artificially separate the public from the private leads some to decry overtly ‘political’ art. In fact, I was taught in Creative Writing classes that only bad art is written with a cause in mind. I side more with Indonesia’s greatest writer, Pramoedya Ananta Toer: “The literature that ‘rejects’ politics, that professes to be wholly apolitical, is obviously produced by those writers who have found a comfortable niche in the halls of power.” Toer’s take is an apposite response to recent reviews of Soderbergh’s Che, which accuse him of an overt political (Marxist) stance. All art has a political stance. When it doesn’t look like it does, that means it’s affirming the status quo (see Forrest Gump, the most reactionary film of the 1990s).
The ‘ulterior motives’ are anywhere and everywhere. A football player celebrating creatively after a score is judged needy of attention. As is U2’s frontman Bono, who appears everywhere in print and other media talking about Africa. The Wachowski brothers must have made their stunning, avant-garde, Marxist film Speed Racer flashy and bright in order to pull in money from the growing video-game crowd. As I finish this essay, in fact, the 12th episode of George Lucas’s Star Wars: The Clone Wars begins with an epigraph: "Fail with honor rather than succeed by fraud." I love a television episode that begins with a moral principle, unironically. And then proceeds to illustrate it, unironically. George Lucas really pisses off critics and fans unnerved by the political groundedness and “self-seriousness” (their word for ‘serious’, since they can’t separate anything from the self) of his prequel trilogy. Lucas angers them more than most because they don’t get to use their typical strategy of attack: accusations of ‘selling out’ to the producers and studios and audience. Because Lucas owns everything (owing originally to an extraordinary and visionary act of faith and initial disregard for wealth), he gets to make whatever fits his peculiar vision, pushing him close to the Nietzschean artist, who disdains to make “one single compromise.” The venomous, bizarrely herdlike hatred, for example, of one his minor characters, Jar Jar Binks, didn’t stop Lucas in this episode from using Binks as unironic hero who subverts the hipness of the Jedi while not only maintaining their ideals, but one-upping them. Despite his clumsiness, he quite graciously works within the multitude of the planet, and all its creatures and rhythms, communicating with the kind of beasts the hipper heroes usually fight. It’s an extraordinary ‘fuck you’ to Star Wars fans to make no less than two episodes both centering upon and glorifying a loathed character, and I read the ‘fuck you’ as follows: Star Wars is not a logo for your identity flag. It’s a mythos and an ethos, and both mythical meaning-making and ethical action run right over, swallowing whole, cool and uncool.

- Spender, Stephen, “Confessions and Autobiography”, in Autobiography: Essays Theoretical and Critical, ed. James Olney, Princeton, 1980
- Rousseau, Jean-Jacques, Confessions, pg. 1, trans. J. M. Cohen, 1953
- Toer, Pramoedya Ananta, ‘The Role and Attitude of Intellectuals in the Third World’, trans. Harry Aveling, in Pramoedya Ananta Toer 70 Tahun, Yayasan Kabar Seberang, 1995


MAX said...

You make pop-culture media and its critics sound like a demon in a Welsh folktale; a warped creature feeling perpetually betrayed, that can see through any lie as long as it hates the truth.

Vertigo Crossing said...

This became infused with Sontag's "Against Interpretation", or perhaps both infused each other as they occurred simultaneously. What it provides in one sense is a path back to Sontag's essay through the false ends and cynical lies of post-modernist relativism. What one can forget, given the changed landscape, is that she was seeking and defining "true" art as with Joyce or Joseph Campbell, or, as runs through so many of those early essays, Nietzsche's definition in The Birth of Tragedy. Naive art is the focal point, and thus the destructive action "interpretation" by critics takes on such naivete. Too much psychology, too much "but what does he really mean", etc. It's worth thinking about how an artist can defeat this as well as those victimized by it, and thinking of Dylan, or Fernando Pessoa, or at least performer Bono there is an answer in masks as much as naked honesty. Masks as naked honesty, but left unable to be pinned.

Lindsey said...

You're right about the vociferous denial that sincerity invokes. I think it stems from laziness and fear. People are used to being comforted by the clumsy immorality and cynical foibles of their protagonists. For those who reject it, sincerity hits too close to home, the carefully constructed home built pop icon by pop icon.

Anthony Cristofani - The Sacred Dice revolutionary salon said...

I love this image of the immaculate construction of a house of pop icons. Even the iconoclasts are just bricks in the walls of the home if they are not SINCERE. you can be sincere with a mask on: ask Rabelais or The Fly.

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