Monday, November 26, 2007

Enough with the Cynicism, Already

Too much of the artistic world, and the world in general, is powered by cynicism rather than passion. Try to find a half-hour sitcom on TV anymore that isn't fundamentally driven by insult comedy: cynicism in action. Maybe that's why people prefer to watch some of the re-runs rather than the new ones. (Recycling the same old same old.)

Poetry criticism, actually all art criticism, is laced with cynicism these days. Perhaps it's because no one can bring themselves to believe that poetry or art matters anymore: that it's all just vapor in the wind, or "creative content" just waiting to be co-opted by commercial culture. It's a helpless feeling, to believe that the creative work you passionately care about has no effect on other people, the world, or life in general. That helplessness can lead to bitterness, and bitterness leads right to cynicism.

That is the pull of entropy, dragging us down. That is the tidal pull of black holes of despair. Resist it! Fight back. Be passionate, be erotic, be alive. That refusal to be cynical is life-affirming in ways most cynics can't even imagine. Lifting their heads out of their laps is too much effort for them.

It's easy to be cynical. (Entropy is always easier than extropy, just as sewage runs downhill.) It's easy to despair. Sometimes it takes all one's energy to like a plan for living. It's easier to be mean than it is to be gracious; it takes less energy to be self-centered than to be altruistic. The path of least energy, though, is often a path into shadow and alienation. After awhile, you begin to believe that no-one cares about anything you have to say. At which point, you have generated a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It's also very easy to attack whenever your precious little ego is attacked: a counter-attack, a counter response, even a pre-emptive attack, is considered justified when it prefers the self above all others. Wilhelm Reich wrote about this in 1948, in his little warning of a book, Listen, Little Man!

Those who are truly alive are kindly and unsuspecting in their human relationships and consequently endangered under present conditions. They assume that others think and act generously, kindly, and helpfully, in accordance with the laws of life. This natural attitude, fundamental to healthy children as well as to primitive man, inevitably represents a great danger in the struggle for a rational way of life as long as the emotional plague subsists, because the plague-ridden impute their own manner of thinking and acting to their fellow men. A kindly man believes that all men are kindly, while one infected with the plague believes that all men lie and cheat and are hungry for power. In such a situation the living are at an obvious disadvantage. When they give to the plague-ridden, they are sucked dry, then ridiculed or betrayed.

The plague Reich referred to was (silent) complicity with the fascist elements native to commercial culture, especially in the McCarthy/Eisenhower era; but it could just as well be referring to cynicism in the arts, or about the arts, today. It is complicity in believing that one has already lost the game, because the adversary has told you so, and therefore one might as well give up and not bother. The roots of cynicism lie in frustrated and embattled hope. The fruits of cynicism are death and hatred, especially self-hatred, because underneath it all lies fear. A fear of passionate engagement, as is done by little children, who put it all out there, and take it all in, giving and receiving a hundred percent of themselves to each moment. Passion means commitment, and the cynical are afraid to commit, especially to commit the sin of admitting they might be wrong.

Don't confuse me with shallow optimists or Pollyannas. I have no use for "positive thinking" when it's based on denial or repression, rather than a realistic assessment of any given situation. I have little patience with those who would paste over every conflict with a false smile: as though sweeping it under the rug ever really made it go away.

Telling the truth, being honest to oneself and others, is a life-affirming act, and the opposite of ironic distance. A prophet cannot afford to be a cynic, and probably was never in any actual danger of becoming one; although even prophets have times of despair.

The antidote to cynicism is fearlessness, and an embracing of the freedom to be honest with oneself, and with others. This implies the freedom to make a fool of oneself, of course; but it also gives us the freedom to think for oneself, to formulate one's own beliefs and opinions, rather than have them served to you by others. The antidote to despair is a realistic assessment that includes what is good as well as what causes suffering.

If you fulfill the role of a prophet, somebody will inevitably come along and try to dismiss you with ironic humor—irony has become the dominant mode of cultural discourse, reflecting an essential hollowness, and forgetting that irony is an experience, not a critical-rhetorical stance—because you will make them uncomfortable, if you are sincerely childlike in your refusal to be cynical. Which is essentially a refusal to play along with the gang.

No-one will like you once you break the unspoken rules of the gang, and speak for yourself, as though you were your own person. Which in fact you are, but the gang will tell you over and over that they own you; some will even kill you rather than let you go. Sound familiar? There are many kinds of death: I could, in using the word "gang," be referring to an actual street gang, but just as easily to many departments of English at various colleges and universities, and just as easily to most poetic and arts criticism that follows the tactic of dismissal and vilification. It's easy to go along with the gang: that too is a form of entropy.

The gang is the Borg. They tell you Resistance is futile, and expect you to believe it, simply because they say, and because they believe in the sheer power of their own numbers. But resistance isn't futile: those silly little humans ended up defeating the Borg numerous times.

Reich also writes, You plead for happiness in life, but security means more to you. That is the general miasma of culture at this point in history. So, if you stand up yourself, you are sticking your neck out; make no mistake of that. If security means more to you than a life of personal responsibility, then the gang already owns you, and will manipulate you with ease.

It's easy to be negative, to be dismissive, to dismiss without having genuinely engaged. It's easy to be critical, rather than constructively critical. It takes more effort to be actively a mentor rather than a dismissive critic. Don't bother citing statistics about how bad art has always outweighed good art, pound for pound; so what? Show me the good art; forget about the rest.

But no: most critics would rather have something bad to say. Perhaps it's because they're so small, they can only feel larger if they tear everyone else down, bringing them down to their level. That most contemporary art and poetry is bad is a given, to the cynical viewpoint: it has ever been thus. Lamenting it won't make it better, or make it go away. The proper response is a shrug, rather than a diatribe. There were no Golden Days, that's just nostalgia for an illusory and fantastical past. The cynic would have you agree with him, and will fight hard against you if you don't. Cynics are as convinced they are right as are most fanatics; differing worldviews are subject to mockery of the tepid lameness typical of late-night talk-show monologues. Dismiss what you can't accept; mock what you can't undertsand; then it's easier to ignore. Entropy wins again.

But the antidote to entropy is life. The anodyne of cynicism is passion, passionate engagement, a well-formed opinion that isn't afraid of either commitment or being wrong. The opposite of love is not hate, but indifference: hatred implies you still actually care enough to spend your energy on it. No true cynic wastes any time on hate, because that would be caring too much; they know this, on some level, even if they won't admit it. An ironic shrug is their stance, because that keeps them safe from actual engagement or commitment.

it's easier to roll downhill with the rest. But you're going uphill, not down, when you refuse to become cynical. You're going to see the wizard, or to see what the world looks like on the other side of the mountain. You don't even have to have a reason to go uphill. The mere fact that you feel you have lost your way, anytime you don't feel like you're going uphill, is a reliable inner barometer for taking the true path in life. Even if you feel like your life and your art is being drowned by a huge wave about to break over you, you have the choice to surf rather than give in and just drown. It can be a struggle that seems to take away all your life-energy in an instant.

Black holes are eating up the light. But even black holes emit Hawking radiation, the heat leaking back out due to quantum effects, and heat is a kind of light. Where there is heat, there is light, there is passion. You can be a hot black hole, not a cold one.

So, go uphill. It may be a sisyphean task, and it may in the end be pointless. But any action that slows down entropy, even locally, even for just a little while, is divinely blessed, and sheds light and life on all who witness.

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Blogger Jessica Schneider said...

Complaining about cynicism in today's criticism is like Ayn Rand complaining about altruism in today's narcissistic, self-obsessed culture. It is hardly a problem. Most "criticism" is vapid, ass-kissy praise, and one does not need be a cynic to recognize that, merely have a brain.

5:17 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

On the one hand, you may have a point.

On the other hand, it's tempting to say, Spoken like a true cynic.

5:44 PM  
Blogger Jessica Schneider said...

Yup. It's healthy to have some though.

6:05 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Not if it takes you over and becomes just one more filter through which you perceive the world, it's not. Rushing to judgment is a filter. Cynicism is a filter. Optimism can be a filter, too. None of these, because they're filters, allow you to see the world as it really is.

12:04 PM  

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