just really good art (literary, film, tv) criticism
"Sad" became the tocsin ringing through the piece, sadness as the consequence of too much plenty: sad waiters, sad cruise ship-goers taking pointless videos of other sad people pointing video cameras at them from their own cruise ships, and sad, senseless attempts by Americans to amuse themselves in the absence of any larger spiritual idea. "Choose with care," Marathe warns in Infinite Jest. "You are what you love. No?" Walace's cruise ship piece was about the price of failing to choose well.
On the cruise ship piece
There is a passage in the work of the contemporary novelist Dorothy Allison which may help explain what I have in mind. Towards the beginning of a remarkable essay called 'Believing in Literature', Allison says that 'literature, and my own dream of writing, has shaped my own system of belief - a kind of atheist's religion ... the backbone of my convictions has been a belief in the progress of human society as demonstrated in its fiction'. She ends the essay as follows:
There is a place where we are always alone with our own mortality, where we must simply have something greater than ourselves to hold onto - God or history or politics or literature or a belief in the healing power of love, or even righteous anger. Sometimes I think they are all the same. A reason to believe, a way to take the world by the throat and insist that there is more to this life than we have ever imagined.
What I like best about this passage is Allison's suggestion that all these may be the same, that it does not greatly matter whether we state our reason to believe - our insistence that some or all finite, mortal humans can be far more than they have yet become - in religious, political, philosophical, literary, sexual or familial terms. What matters is the insistence itself - the romance, the ability to experience overpowering hope, or faith, or love (or, sometimes, rage).
What is distinctive about this state is that it carries us beyond
argument, because beyond presendy used language. It thereby carries
us beyond the imagination of the present age of the world. [...]
In past ages of the world, things were so bad that 'a reason to
believe, a way to take the world by the throat' was hard to get except
by looking to a power not ourselves. In those days, there was little
choice but to sacrifice the intellect in order to grasp hold of the
premises of practical syllogisms - premises concerning the after-death
consequences of baptism, pilgrimage or participation in holy wars. To
be imaginative and to be religious, in those dark times, came to almost
the same thing - for this world was too wretched to lift up the heart.
But things are different now, because of human beings' gradual success
in making their lives, and their world, less wretched. Nonreligious
forms of romance have flourished - if only in those lucky parts of the
world where wealth, leisure, literacy and democracy have worked
together to prolong our lives and fill our libraries. Now the things of
this world are, for some lucky people, so welcome that they do not
have to look beyond nature to the supernatural, and beyond life to
an afterlife, but only beyond the human past to the human future.
this whole passage is so good
There is a lonely need at the heart of this book, the need for all this ephemeral shit to mean something, for the generations nurtured by the internet to have collected something more than transient commodities and opinions about them, more than posts and tweets and days of recycling things we’ve consumed and perhaps leveraged into monetized brands. But Cline has rejected the bigger ideas that usually absorb all our mortal flailing into an arc of greater redemptive significance. Religion is out. Unsurprisingly, he doesn’t so much as flirt with Marxism, even in a rootless Hegelian form of thesis, antithesis and synthesis inexorably churning human society forward. Capitalism is portrayed as a disease unless it’s in the hands of the right people, which is indistinguishable from the view of capitalism espoused by the wrong people.
At times, you can almost sense a muffled scream trying to escape the page, the unthinkable recognition that memorizing movies and videogame speed-runs and every beat of a standup routine contains only the memory space required to store it—that it builds to nothing, achieves nothing, signifies nothing more than the story of somebody else. That you can watch Raiders of the Lost Ark 100 times, and on the 101st, it won’t reveal a greater truth or build a better you. That the passivity of life via filmstrip exacts no price because it confers no prize. That, maybe, the cold message of becoming a pop-culture savant is realizing that you’ve dedicated your life to the craft of memorizing how it happened to someone else—or as someone else happened to imagine it. That the Comic Book Guy was right to lament, “Oh, I’ve wasted my life.”
Maybe that’s the seductive—and to those who embrace it—profound appeal of a story like Ready Player One, built on the bones of hundreds of others: that somehow we can construct a scavenger hunt of narrative human significance from everything we’ve already consumed, something every bit as spiritual and whole as a more rigorous study and embrace of the world as it is. Maybe there is a mechanism by which we can collect enough skill and armament and enchantment to ineffably cohere as flesh and spirit, something more sublime than meat networked and spasming with electricity.
Cline just hasn’t watched the movie that explains that part yet, and it’s not his fault. Nobody has.
This essay on the loss of grace in tennis speaks then to the passing of a writer's first ecstatic access to creation. Wallace mourns the loss and maps a paradox that would become the seed idea of later work. The paradox is that although we need to live in peaks, these hypostatic highs of sex, success, religion, love, creation, conception, childbirth, or yes sports, we can only fully appreciate the peaks when they are passed and passing. Why? Because ecstasy's power lies in its wordlessness, its ability to make of us a happy holy blank. Because appreciation is a branch of thought, it is only in falling, in coming down from ecstasy, that we can know that we have briefly touched the ultimate. It is only in the falling too that we try to find words for the sublime [...]
I don't believe we can ever turn upon ourselves in the sense Ellen intends. You can't get behind the thing that casts the shadow. You cast the shadow. As soon as you turn, the shadow falls in another place. Is still your shadow. You have not gotten "behind" yourself. That is why self-consciousness is not the way to make ourselves better than we are.
Just me and my shadow, walkin' down the avenue.
It is a beautiful day here in North Carolina. The first day that is both cool and sunny all summer. After a terrible summer, first drought, then heat wave, then torrential rain, trees down, flooding. Now, finally, beautiful weather. A tree outside my window just brushed by red, with one fully red leaf. (This is what I want you to see.) A person sitting in stocking feet looking out her window-a floor to ceiling rectangle filled with green, with one red leaf. The season poised, sunny and chill, ready to rush down the incline into autumn. But perfect, and still. Not going yet.
CONSIDER THE VOICE OF Meek Mill. The inscription of dreams and nightmares in the grain. Its breathlessness, always on the verge of shrill hoarseness, gasping for air, as if the torrent of words can’t come fast enough — as if there might not be enough time to say the things that need to be said. Every syllable eked out through grit, the cold facts of North Philly firing through a monochromatic hollow, like a crack in a bell.
IMAGINE A PEOPLE enthralled, gleefully internalizing the world of pure capital flow, of infinite negative freedom (continuously replenished through frictionless browsing), thrilled at the possibilities (in fact necessity) of self-commodification, the value in the network of one’s body, the harvesting of others. Imagine communities saturated in the vocabulary of cynical postrevolutionary blaxploitation, corporate bourgeois triumphalism, and also the devastation of crack, a schizophrenic cultural script in which black success was projected as the corporate mogul status achieved by Oprah or Jay-Z even as an angst-ridden black middle class propped up on predatory credit loans, gutted by the whims of financial speculation and lack of labor protections, slipped backward into the abyss of the prison archipelago where the majority poor remained. Imagine, then, the colonization of space, time, and most importantly cultural capital by the socially mediated system of images called the internet. Imagine finally a vast supply of cheap guns flooding neighborhoods already struggling to stay alive. What would the music of such a convergence sound like?
TRAP IS A FORM OF soft power that takes the resources of the black underclass (raw talent, charisma, endurance, persistence, improvisation, dexterity, adaptability, beauty) and uses them to change the attitudes, behaviors, and preferences of others, usually by making them admit they desire and admire those same things and will pay good money to share vicariously in even a collateral showering from below. This allows the trap artist to transition from an environment where raw hard power dominates and life is nasty, brutal, and short to the world of celebrity, the Valhalla of excess, lucre, influence, fame — the only transparently and sincerely valued site of belonging in our culture. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that insofar as you’re interested in having a good time, there’s probably never been a sound so perfectly suited to having every kind of fun disallowed in conservative America.
Is it really much of a scam to lie with transparent childishness to the grown-ups around you? The way Moonee and Scooty and eventually Jancy go about getting their ice creams is by telling fibs that reveal the simple truth of their lives: they don’t have any money. And what is the alternative, exactly? Where are these six-year-olds supposed to get the money for an ice cream cone? By going out, getting a job, and earning it, like good kids would do? Or is the only alternative—the only thing that could make them good kids—to have been born to mothers who can give them the money they need?
In America, we are raised to believe that there is something intrinsically sick about criminal behavior. It is always wrong to steal, because what we own makes us who we are, because—the logic goes—we have earned it. To steal what belongs to someone else is to steal their virtue, to defraud them of their very identity. But the logic of this belief system begins to fall apart in a world where money makes more money, where how much wealth you amass has very little to do with how hard you work, and where there are few things more expensive than being poor.
And when so much money is all around you—just outside Idlewild, where Henry Hill came of age; just beyond the frayed strip malls and cracked highways that make up the entrance wound surrounding Disney World—you can also see it as passive to the point of insanity to not reach out and take some of the wealth that passes you by. And if just a little of the money that is flowing and surging and leaping its banks all around you is money that could save you and your child from hunger, from homelessness, from danger you cannot imagine and danger you know all too well—it is difficult to see the immorality in reaching out and taking what you need. Respecting ownership and property the way you were taught to, as a good American, may mean allowing your child to suffer. There are millions of Americans who seem to see no contradiction in this. There are millions more who are wondering, now, how we got to be this way, and beginning also to wonder if we were ever anything else.
i love this