Light, Time, and Wankery

by rsbakker

Aphorism of the Day: Only when you pause to listen–really listen–to someone else speaking, can you discover how irritating you yourself are.

The snow will simply not… stop… falling…

My back feels like a hooker’s ass, I’ve been shovelling so much.

Progress on The Unholy Consult has petered out the past few days. Every morning, when I crack open my laptop in the coffeeshop, there’s this wobbly moment which determines the next several hours of my day. For whatever reason this moment has been tipping me toward my bizarre CanLit piece, Light, Time, and Gravity.

Time wasted, I’m sure. I should start shopping it around, just to get it out of my hair.

Another alternative would be to publish it here, section by section, day by day. It would be a great way to get feedback, but I fear it would scare more sensible readers away.

The idea was to take the aesthetic norms of contemporary commercial literature at their word: to both write ‘something I know,’ and to write something ‘genuinely challenging.’

This first imperative: ‘Write what you know!’ is little more than the aesthetic fig-leaf that literary culture uses to rationalize their disdain of spectacle. I find it more than a little coincidental that it became religious dogma around the same time mass public education made literacy universal. Appreciation for spectacle is simply part of the human floor plan, so if you want to exclude the masses, render yourself ‘exceptional,’ all you need do is banish it from the realm of ‘serious art.’ You make the banal your idol, then look down on the vulgar masses for not having acquired your tastes.

This second imperative: ‘Challenge your reader!’ is the second figleaf. Rather than look at conventions as kinds of channels that put you in contact with various audiences sharing common expectations, you characterize them as restraints, as cages that close down the aesthetic future. Once again you have the same happy coincidence: since humans possess a hardwired appetite for conventionality, defecting from popular conventions effectively isolates your ‘art’ from the masses, once again confirming your status as exceptional.

Both of these slogans are little more than self-congratulatory versions of painting NO GIRLS ALLOWED on your clubhouse door. They allow far too many exceedingly talented people to turn their back on their culture, all the while convinced that their culture has turned its back on them.

But you’ve heard all this before.

What I try to do in Light, Time, and Gravity is turn these slogans inside out, use them to wage a kind of spiritual war against the literary reader. I use my (crazy) teenage experiences working in tobacco to satisfy the first, then I use quasi-Nietzschean theoretical rants to satisfy the second, playing the two threads off one another. In neither case, do I let the reader off the hook. One of the things that has always dismayed me about literary writers is the hypocrisy of the ‘egalitarian impulse’ they are so quick to brandish on their textual sleeves. They certainly love writing ABOUT what they consider the low and the mean, but not one of them would be caught dead writing FOR them.  They’re the kind of tourists who congratulate themselves for bringing candies to hand out to all the brown-eyed kids.

What I do is tell the story a la the Underground Man, from the standpoint of an embittered English professor (no relation!) looking back at his low caste youth and mourning the university institutionalization that has so mangled his soul. In the course of narrating the tobacco harvest of 1984, he systematically accounts for all the theoretical vanities and tribal conceits that have accumulated over the subsequent years–all the things that have turned him into, as he puts it, ‘a fucking clown.’ Parallel to this, he theoretically dismantles the self-aggrandizing folly of post-structuralism, and post-modernism more generally, in an act of ideological auto-cannibalism, realizing that status and self-regard had been the true engine of his practice all along. I intentionally don’t pull any punches with the theory in the hope of showing certain readers what real ‘challenge’ looks like, and how they really aren’t interested in it at all.

How what they really want is conventionality–their conventionality.

It’s kind of an anti-Bildungsroman on the one hand, a story of an artist spiritually destroyed in the process of escaping his benighted origins, and a poor man’s Philosophical Investigations on the other. The most obnoxious thing I have ever written.

And probably unpublishable.