Writers used to be interesting. And we used to think that the “literary life” with its late night deep conversations about the ultimate meaning of things was very cool and full of meaning. At least I did.
But something odd happened after the second great war. Absurdists attempted to shock us with the proposition that there is no meaning to talk about. Of course, that proposition itself seemed worth arguing about. And intellectuals did argue about it for a while. We also got stories about the discovery of a lack of meaning in things that were supposedly meaningful (as in Heller’s Catch 22). Temporarily it seemed that literary culture would survive the absurdist intrusion.
But along came pop culture. Pop took the absurd a step further. The pop manifesto is that if there is no deep meaning in things, there is no point in talking about them. We can just get on with it!
Some examples might clarify my point.
The comic book group “The Archies” made it to Number 1 on the charts with:
“Sugar Sugar! Honey honey! You are my candy, girl! And you got me wanting you!”
Her is the video
Looking for meaning? Don’t bother yourself. After all, the lyrics are being sung by cartoon characters.
And this from Sly and the Family Stone
“I want to thank you for letting me be myself again!”
When I was much younger, I wondered what the malleable Sly had been before he was himself, and how many times he had undergone the transition from non-self to self. Was it routine?
And did the assistance merit just a “thank you” rather than a deeper connection or reward? One doubts that Sly was singing about his psychiatric care giver, and if such a person exited, one also doubts whether he or she would have been content with just a thank you for facilitating Sly’s remarkable identity remake! Not to mention that this sort of facilitation may have been required on a somewhat regular basis. And on the subject of cognition, how did Sly now know he actually was himself if he had not been himself in the first place? Which was which?
But all this pondering did not get me very far. I was missing the point!
We can even enjoy ourselves when we are not ourselves but somebody else!
In other words, the absurd was not shocking at all. It was liberating. One could cast off concerns about “real” identify and aspire instead to a “manufactured” self supported by others who are equally … dare I say it … superficial. Kafka’s bug in the Metamorphosis should have found his way to the bug disco! He or it could have enhanced the Monster Mash! And this paradigm took hold
“Of course life has no meaning! Let’s all party!”
In short, we did not acknowledge it — and perhaps we were being just a tad dishonest by not acknowledging it — but the absurdists had won out. The arguments about meaning or even meaning or lack of meaning were over. And pop with its implied absurdist core took center stage.
Elevator music taken out of the elevator?
Unfortunately, there was an unexpected byproduct. The thought had not occurred to us, but conversation requires an exchange of meaning. In an era where meaning has no meaning, there was now no longer much to talk about … other than what one wore when he or she did X, or what one had for breakfast the morning after.
Which led me to a different appreciation for the idea of fashion. In the old days, fashion was meant to support one’s lifestyle. Carey Grant was a leading fashion figure of the 1930’s into the 1960’s, and his “fashion sense” was to minimize the effect of his clothing. He wore the clothes. They did not wear him. Never mind that Carey himself was a fiction. At least he pretended not to be a fiction!
After the triumph of pop, however, fashion was a thing unto itself. Pop fashion demanded it!
We see fashion ideas like this
And not just for women
Absurd? Of course! That is the point. Just accept that it is momentarily entertaining to express oneself. in odd ways. There is nothing more to the story.
And I would argue that this is where we are now.
Pop culture has had its way for a long time. It is mainstream. We stopped paying attention to the lyrics of pop songs long ago, and yet pop musicians who sing those songs expect to become very wealthy by pretending to convey meaning. Pop even has a certain power without the need to advertise deep meaning. JayZ and Beance are a “power couple”! What do they stand for? Perhaps I am missing something, but I could not tell you.
To be fair, I would say the same about this dude
And many others.
Novelists, on the other hand, expect to live in poverty. Nor will their commentary, let alone the commentary of intellectuals in general, have much impact on modern culture. “Of course Trump is absurd! Get used to it!” Or even worse “It is all fake news!” Meanwhile there is a startling lack of curiosity about how such an absurd figure as Donald Trump could become the president of the proud United States.
Will this be a permanent state of affairs?
I don’t know the answer to that one. But at least I recognize that it is an interesting question. One worth exploring over a glass or two of Bushmills with others who might have something interesting to say — rather than worry about whether they themselves are interesting as pop culture artifacts.
Interesting as a pop culture artifact? Andy Warhol made that idea famous, though Andy knew the interest would be temporary and arbitrary — and that was just fine!
Consider this title
Isn’t there something wrong here? Isn’t the title mission impossible?
Meanwhile we can ponder the state of affairs with Vox’s literary round up for the week. There we find out that a food recipe writer was unable to make much money from her book “Indian Instant Pot Cookbook”. Perhaps a jacket cover with a modified image of an Andy Warhol can of Campbell Soup would have helped?
What do you think?
As a post script, I am reminded of the delightfully naughty scene from Brideshead Revisited when young Charles Ryder is trying to conduct a deeply meaningful late night intellectual discussion in his rooms at Oxford. The discussion is interrupted by a rather different sort of entertainment.
If you are wondering, Waugh first published Brideshead in 1945. It became much more popular after it was turned into a TV series in 1981. Part of its popularity lies in the nostalgia that the images and personalities convey. That sort of longing for the past has emerged in films again and again, and one might argue evidences a desire for a more innocent (meaningful) past.
I would argue that another reason for the popularity of the Brideshead TV series is that Waugh’s exquisite narrative prose was kept in the script. BTW, the initial thought was to ditch it. But the producers could not find anyone who could write so well. As Christopher Hitchens explains in a rather provocative way for The Guardian, a later film botches the whole thing by stripping out the nuances that Waugh so carefully placed in the story.
It seems that they just didn’t quite get what Waugh was trying to say.
A second post script – I made at least one booboo when I wrote that the pop revolution destroyed all avenues for exchanging ideas when it embraced absurdist values.
There are at least two such avenues.
One is fantasy. Amidst crushing absurdity, one can live and socialize and even thrive in a strange way in a fantasy world context. Many do. Disney got that long ago. Fans pay lots of money to enter these worlds and engage in passionate exchanges about those worlds. Star Trek, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Superman, Batman, the Avengers, the other superheroes series and on and on and on all enable folks to experience and talk about something else when reality seems to them to be less meaningful.
The second is nihilism. A perceived lack of coherence in reality can produce a fascination with the apocalypse and even a desire to bring it about. When expressions of this sort appear, we scratch our heads and wonder how it could be possible. And yet, one can argue that such cravings for violence for the sake of violence are to be expected in an absurd setting (Camus wrote about that in The Stranger back in 1942). More recently, on might think about the pop music of the late Jim Morrison and the Doors. “Riders on the Storm”? “This is the end”? Whatever happened to “Surf City USA”?