It is easy enough to get not just pessimistic, but downright cynical about what passes for American popular culture at our present moment. With the rise of the "reality TV" show in an ever-contracting circle - much like what happens when one flushes a toilet, I suppose - to the many, more thoughtful ruminations on the potential dangers of an unhealthy and unrealistic understanding of friendship brought about by the new social media, one could, I suppose, surrender to the potential destruction of any sense of human connection, of any clear-cut line between our public and our private selves, between how we live our lives and how others perceive who we are, seeking to align them in some perverse, and finally psychotic, attempt at balance.
I have been feeling that way. The sheer ubiquity of non-entities crowding public spaces for our attention, the absurdity of fake celebrities cashing in on name recognition for a last chance at the spotlight with fading businessman Donald Trump, or the contrivances of "reality TV" that offer up edited lives, creating the possibility that even those who would, under the usual run of the Universe, not even achieve mediocrity with effort, suddenly have their faces splashed across magazines, their words repeated endlessly, their hairdos and musculature the subject of so much public debate. Combined with the political farce of a fetus "testifying" before a Congressional committee, and Peter King's Islamophobia circus, far too much of our public sphere has been deserted by anything resembling intelligence, thoughtfulness, any sense whatsoever that we are just not meeting the challenges of our time, abdicating any responsibility for our own future as a society.
In the midst, perhaps not of despair but certainly grumpiness, it was my great good fortune to read two essays in the latest New York Review of Books that each in its own way, deal with questions regarding the difference between our public and private selves, the contradictions of our lives, the hypocricies we all face, and the reality that we are worse than we hope, but usually better than we fear, at least most of the time.
The first, a review of an introduction to the Essays of Michel de Montaigne, makes the not unimportant point, wholly relevant in an age of Facebook, Twitter, and the on-going blogs that purport to open our lives to the rest of the world, that there is always a dialectic at work in self-revelation. Even the most mundane reflection on one's life, say a journal entry, precisely because it is a writing about an act, discards what may seem at the time extraneous detail, to focus attention on the act itself. We are hardly being revelatory of ourselves when we sit down on Facebook and give a sentence or two about our kids, or our job, what we're having for lunch, or even providing a link to a song or new article that may have our attention. Even as we try to understand ourselves, there are other parts that we hide, deliberately or otherwise, making even the most naked statement of belief about ourselves simultaneously a hiding of so much else.
Most of the time, I have admitted this to myself and others. Those who worry that even mediocrity can be dramatic (or melodramatic) thanks to "reality" television forget that it is no more real than anything else. Edited, very often in a disingenuous (to be generous) manner to create either drama or tension where none may exist, or to create personas rather than persons, it has no more bearing on human life than an old episode of The Twilight Zone. That some of those who participate in it may begin to believe in the lie there is anything real going on testifies less to the medium or its message, and more to the lack of self-reflection on the part of the individuals involved.
The other essay is a review of the latest Gunter Grass work, where the lines between fiction and memoir, novel and carefully crafted reminiscence become blurred. Designed by the author, it purports to be excerpts from several get-togethers the author had on or near his 80th birthday with his children. He offered to cook for them if he could record their reflections on growing up with Grass as their father. What emerges from the essay, and perhaps from the work as well, is a portrait of Grass as one of the most masterful story-weavers imaginable. Memory and history, fact and fantasy, obfuscation and revelation have always been a part of Grass' work; in this work no less than either his recently published memoirs or his other works it all blends together in the service, it seems, of telling a tale. Sometimes a horrible tale, sometimes a sad tale, sometimes a funny tale, but it is the story that is important.
This blurring of the distinction between reality and fantasy, between perception and reality, between what we wish the world to believe and what really is, as well as allowing the narrative to dictate what is and is not fact, what is and is not relevant, is as old as literature in the west. The master of this, of course, was St. Augustine in his Confessions (about which I had a discussion with someone on my friends list who is a theology Ph. D.; he also figures prominently in the essay on the book on Montaigne). In the long course of his life, that Augustine stole some fruit from an orchard as a boy seems unimportant to we who read it today. We wouldn't otherwise know about it, except of course Augustine tells his readers about it. An important question to ask, I think, regards we contemporary readers of Augustine who are far too quick to dismiss this incident as irrelevant to his life. Clearly, he understood its importance, not just as a symbol, but as an act in and for itself; who are we to say that Augustine doesn't know what he's talking about?
Too many commentators have misunderstood certain events and social and cultural phenomena. For example, the erasure of the distinction between public and private behavior we saw on too-long display during the two years of the Clinton impeachment saga was little more than politics. The ubiquity of the kind of behavior Clinton displayed - taking advantage of a starry-eyed young woman eager enough to throw herself at the President of the United States - should caution us against making ringing judgments about the blurring of that distinction. The ubiquity of "reality TV" is as much as sign of laziness on the part of television producers as it is of moral laxity of Americans. That some folks parrot the trends and personalities on display is not a mark against the genre; rather, it is testimony to the reality that some people quite simply crave attention, and are willing to act as if their lives were on public display. It is more about personality quirks than the destruction of American culture.
My guess is most folks who use Facebook understand the difference between the people on their friends' list and those whom they consider real friends. The latter can usually be counted on no more than the fingers of a couple hands. Those who know us best may number no more than one or two. At its worst, Facebook is a time-wasting device. At its best, it allows people to keep up with a multiplicity of people whose paths have diverged from ours, but who still haunt our thoughts. A century ago, those with a large Facebook friends' list would have a large correspondence. Instead of writing letters, we "like" a status update. It's really no more than that.
I was getting disappointed in the latest NYRB until I read those two pieces. They reminded me that, by and large, we are smarter, and wiser, than we give ourselves credit for. I have yet to meet anyone who believes either that Jersey Shore represents commendable human action, or that Facebook is any substitute for real human interaction, despite all the commentators (myself included on occasion) who might claim otherwise. It is always nice to have a bit of one's faith in reality and all its messiness restored.