Saturday, August 6, 2011

Let Me Tell You A Story

" 'I knew a man,' I say. 'He imagined he was dogged by bad luck, a decent man, but one for whom everything went wrong. We were all sorry for him. No sooner had he saved up some money than there was devaluation. And it went like that all the time. No tile ever fell from the roof when he wasn't passing. This invention that one is dogged by bad luck is one of the favorites, because it's comfortable. Not a month passed for this man without his having cause for complaint, not a week, scarcely a day. Anyone who knew him a bit was afraid to ask: How are things? And yet he didn't really complain, he merely smiled about his legendary bad luck. And in fact things were always happening to him that other people were spared. and all the time he bore it manfully--till the miracle happened.

"It was a blow for him, a real blow, when this man won the big prize in the lottery. It was in the newspaper, so he couldn't deny it. When I met him in the street he was pale, dumbfounded, he didn't doubt his invention that he was a man dogged by bad luck, but he did doubt the lottery, in fact the world altogether. It was no laughing matter, he actually had to be comforted. In vain. He couldn't grasp the fact that he was not dogged by bad luck, wouldn't grasp it and was so confused that on his way back from the bank he actually lost his wallet. And I believe he preferred it that way," I say. "Otherwise he would have had to invent a different self for himself, the poor fellow, he couldn't have gone on seeing himself as a man dogged by bad luck. Another self is more expensive than the loss of a full wallet, of course; he would have had to abandon the whole story of his life, live through all the events again and differently, since they would noi longer have gone with his ego--'

"I drink." --Gantenbein, Max Frisch

Back way back, in the early winter months of 2007, I took a course on European literature. We read Thomas Mann's Magic Mountain, Michel Houellebecq's Elementary Particles, Marcel Proust's Swann's Way, and Max Frisch's Gantenbein. The other books were superior pieces of literature (well, the Houllebecq's open to discussion), but it's Gantenbein that stuck with me the most, and I think this passage is the reason why. I'm very attracted to the idea that we guide our lives on the basis of stories we make up about ourselves. And these stories being nice or flattering isn't nearly as important as them being intriguing, and all encompassing. They allow us to unify our past and project our actions into a meaningful future. Without them, we drift. We live our lives as if they're stories because the alternative is to live with no story at all.

Of course, in the academic world, the correct term for these stories is "worldview," "subjective perspective," or the catch-all term "ideology." I prefer stories or narratives to ideology though; "ideology" seems like a 19th century coining for something that's been around a lot longer than that (sorry Marx). Jean-Fran├žois Lyotard famously argued that we've entered into a phase where there are no longer grand narratives that prop up and attempt to motivate an entire society. I've got my doubts about that--watch Fox News for a few hours, for example, and tell me no one's selling grand narratives anymore--but I think on an individual level, we still let them shape our experiences.

Using "story" over "ideology" also allows me to speculate without a shred of evidence on what it would be like to live a life based closely on one of the classic forms of narrative, tragedy or comedy. The appeal of living in a tragedy, I imagine, is that you're always the central figure--I mean, that's part of the appeal of any narrative, but for tragedy, it's doubly so. You're a great, noble figure, brought down (or at least besieged) by forces outside of your control. The downside is the obvious one: the protagonist of a tragedy is never at peace, or even at rest. At its extreme, you see yourself as a martyr figure, constantly under attack. (And if you act like that long enough, you probably will be under constant attack.)

And the extreme comedy isn't any better, albeit its excesses are more insidious. Comedy, at its heart, is fairly conservative. Yes, it makes fun of stereotypes and cliches, but it as it does so, it is at some level reinforcing them as well. It not only reinforces such beliefs, it also encourages you to keep things the same--see the anecdote above. The man lives a comic trope, but because he's so used to it, he can't live anything else. Consider your typical sitcom--the characters can change and grow only up to a point, or the spirit of the show is irrevocably altered. Drew Carey never gets out of his dead-end job, Pan and Jim will never work anywhere but the paper supply office, and Liz Lemon will never get her life together (and Jack's wife has to be kidnapped by Kim Jong-Il, but that's a different rant.) An even better example is Jim Carrey's character on the Truman Show; though it wasn't a comedy per se, the life his character was living is comparable to the same consequences: living in a comedy keeps you safe, protected, but unchanging. IT's the irony of the comedy: take it to the extreme, and it becomes a tragic prison. And vice versa. The sad clown trope, and so forth.

The comedy aspect in particular has been in my mind of late. It was my birthday a few days ago and on the day I was walking home from purchasing a few groceries. I was so intent on the book I was reading (yes, I read books while walking. That's a different discussion. Stay focused) and walked into the wrong house. Just as I wondered when we had painted our walls yellow, a stranger's voice called out "hello?". I replied "sorry, wrong house," and 23-skidooed. And when I was at the bar to celebrate said birthday the next night, I told that story a lot, because, well, it's a good story. One of the common responses was "yep, that sounds like something that would happen to you" or "you're really living that absent-minded professor stereotype, huh?". It was a little eye-opening. Am I trapped in a comedic hell of my own making?

Well, no, I'm not. To give Lyotard some credit, it's not so much that grand narratives have ceased to exist, it's that, more than ever, we're bombarded with some many different stories, so many versions of ourselves and others, that one label can fully encompass anyone, myself included. At the same time, you need to recognize when you've put yourself or allowed yourself to be put in a particularly destructive story (or ideology, path, etc), and extricate yourself accordingly. We all have some control over the stories we tell. And no one has to be trapped in a story, comedy or otherwise.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go to Facebook and upload a photo of myself doing a blowjob shot.
Sometimes, the line between tragedy and comedy grows a little thin.

Later days.

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