Saturday, October 24, 2009
"The imagination is a dying animal."
In my first post on this blog, I admitted that I do not entirely understand my own taste -- that sometimes I am moved beyond reason by writing or films or television or even advertisements that do not satisfy my own stringent criteria for greatness. And I promised that, from time to time at least, rather than pretending to be a stainless priestess of high art, I would acknowledge and even try to articulate why I love the things I do.
I'm going to come right out and say it: I love the Kids in the Hall. I love them beyond sense or reason. I laugh every time I watch them, despite the fact that they're sometimes not funny. Sometimes I laugh because they're not funny. The summer before I left for college, Comedy Central played two episodes of Kids in the Hall every day in the afternoon. I watched these episodes every day. I also tape recorded them and have watched them repeatedly since then. There are many TV series that I find sporadically entertaining, that I'll watch when they're on: South Park, the Wire, who the hell knows. Fundamentally, though, it would make zero difference to me if these shows had never existed. Not so with Kids in the Hall. Kids in the Hall is my show. Something in it speaks to me.
I once had a professor who told us that, when asked to name his influences, Borges listed a very strange assortment of authors, including Robert Louis Stevenson, who was considered something of a hack writer at the time (and is still regarded that way by many, despite the patina of age that has transformed several of his books into "classics"). This professor told us that our own work would benefit if we followed Borges's example. Instead of copying the writers we saw as the most accomplished or influential, we should take our inspiration from the writers who excited us the most, regardless of what they actually had achieved. In fact, if they were second-rate, so much the better. That way, we'd be mining uncharted territory, rather than picking over the dust and nuggets left in a ghost town after the rush.
Obviously, this professor wasn't saying we should be inspired by the flawed techniques or sloppiness of these mediocrities. He was saying, though, that respecting, say, the craft of Raymond Carver doesn't mean you have to write about realist characters getting divorces in laundromats. This is a sentiment echoed by George Saunders in an interview. After naming a handful of writers -- Gogol, Hemingway, Kafka -- whose influence he still feels, he goes on to say, "But I think also, lately, I'm starting to be more honest about the fact that there are a lot of TV influences and pop culture stuff in there too. You know, in a funny way I'm starting to rethink the whole influences thing. It feels to me like you're born with certain neurological tendencies or affinities, and then you just kind of walk through the world picking out the things that feed that."
As a writer, I understand this perfectly: in my own art anything goes. If Kids in the Hall, or for that matter, the New Kids on the Block, inspire me, it doesn't matter; the only thing that counts is the end product of what I create. But as someone who wants to write critically about narrative art, this troubles me. How much of my experience of, say, Kids in the Hall, is a result of my "neurological tendencies or affinities," and how much is a result of my considered judgment? And, if I admit that most of my experience is a result of these affinities, then what does that say about my opinion of a film or novel I regard as a masterpiece?
Wittgenstein, to rope him into my arguments again, once wrote, "When I read over a poem or narrative with feeling, surely something goes on in me which does not go on when I merely skim the lines for information. What process am I alluding to? The sentences have a different ring." When I first started dating my partner, I couldn't believe he didn't love Kids in the Hall. I "told" him many of their jokes and sketches, which I had memorized, or nearly, and he generally thought they were funny. When we watched the aforementioned videotapes together, though, back in my childhood home, he still didn't love it the way I did. "They draw every joke out for way too long," he argued. "And a lot of it just isn't that funny."
A teenager tells his uncaring parents, "You have carpet on your hearts." A young man rhapsodizes about the legs of his lover as she stands in the water: "Like God's own barge poles." A blues guitarist sings, "You can't use your tongue to stop a fan," and his back-up drummer sticks out his tongue to reveal a prominent band-aid. A pyromaniac French woman pouts when her boss puts out a fire: "Monsieur! Mon feu!" A bearded lady declares, "We're freaks! We can drink as much as we want!" and a confused waiter replies, "But don't you get drunk?" "Of course," replies her companion, the Chicken Lady. "My brain is only the size of a waaaalnut." After writing this paragraph, I went to the Kids in the Hall Wikipedia site to look for more examples and laughed so hard I literally started crying. But my partner has watched these episodes, and though he saw the same show I saw, he didn't see in it what I saw. It didn't have the same ring.
I'd argue that, with a truly accomplished piece of art, it doesn't all just come down to the randomness of taste. There are things we can point to, structurally and at the level of the sentence, that clearly denote a rigorous craftsmanship in the piece's design and execution. But as much as I admire these qualities, and as fascinating as I think they are to talk and think about, they're not necessarily the reason I love the piece in question -- or at least not the reason I fell in love with it in the first place.
Who says a blog post has to have an ending?