The heart of it.
News of Elena Kagan’s nomination to replace that magnificent dissenter John Paul Stevens just isn’t as thrilling as I may have hoped. The tedium of the news flow – the mounting disaster in the Gulf, car bomb incompetence, and the labyrinth of British elections – while interesting and important, isn’t moving me to write. The benefit of a blog is that I can be as indulgent as I like and don’t for the moment need to cover Ms. Kagan, though Supreme Court Justices are in many ways more important than presidents. So I’m going to wax a little poetic and remind myself what I want to do and why I believe in journalism. This one’s more personal than the usual scathing account of Ahmadinejad’s antics or excitement about the latest NASA future science.
Back in the days of my abandoned career path I fell hard for the sweeping, unflinching idealism of Antonin Artaud. He advocated the Theatre of Cruelty, a performance philosophy that demanded that works invade, destroy, and rebuild the target audience. Tall order. Artaud endorsed the ‘mirror of society’ metaphor that people toss around for the stage, and took it to the extreme. It’s worth noting that he was an utter theatrical failure because his idealism seems to have been too rigid to function – people in theatre know that flexibility is essential. But his uncompromising zeal influenced generations of artists and helped articulate the highest aims of art. In a militant way, yes, but that’s useful to mobilize young dreamers.
What Artaud missed with his assault on the audience’s senses and demand for change is a subtle distinction in the execution of effective art: the invitation. The stage should be an open, extended hand. A fist will only reinforce people’s barriers and encourage resistance or dismissal. You want to bring the audience into a world of suspended disbelief and to trust in the storyteller’s content and delivery. The invasion Artaud wanted is a more subtle and perhaps insidious beast than he seemed willing to admit. Yeah, a General can command the belief of his troops and they signed on to aim where directed, when directed. But art’s got to go universal and transcend the petty, artificial distinctions between us humans. People are generally more interested in open invitations to draw their own conclusions than in any kind of mandatory transformation.
And anyone worth anything has had those experiences of subtle transformation, transfixion and getting rocked by the eternal truths of the world. There’s potential for that in every moment, but art makes it its business to offer the ecstatic. Y’all know what I’m talking about: ek stasis, meaning out of this world. It sounds a lot like some artsy fartsy weirdness, but it isn’t. Let your mind break and have a pure experience. Part of the communal beauty of art is that everyone gets an opportunity to drop their egos for a minute, to get over themselves and deep into something else. If you don’t get down that way, we probably can’t be friends.
This brings me to Nicole (my girl, for you passersby) and why we’re going to make it. Recently she rocked me with a near fanatical dedication to David Lynch, and I’m so grateful to be in close proximity to her love affair with this filmmaker. Mulholland Drive is the most magnificently invasive movie I’ve ever seen. It’s what Artaud dreamed of. Mr. Lynch exercises an authority that I’m working out how to express. If the president, if Barack Obama showed up and invited you aside for a private discussion you’d go. You (I) wouldn’t question his intentions, you wouldn’t second-guess the opportunity, you would go and not look back. This owing as much to his celebrity as the authority his office commands. David Lynch does something like that with Mulholland Drive, with his pronounced and unique virtuosity. The moment you give yourself permission to just effing get into it, the rest is magic. Yes, it’s an invitation – there’s no gun to your head, no order from on high. But there’s a force behind it, something seductive and sacred that’s difficult to refuse
I think about that movie all the time. Less for the storytelling (although how the hell does he do it?) than for the feeling.
There’s the clincher. The bits of interviews I’ve caught and the David Lynch book that sat in the bathroom for a month or so have a few thematic elements throughout. I’m focusing on his dedication to a feeling, to searching meticulously for the image that invokes a particular feeling he had in conceiving the moment. He’s a firm believer in ideas, in seeing them through to their fruition. He’s also armed with a complete trust in his own intuition, so that relentless pursuit of the articulation of his idea stays anchored to that truth. Fortunately for us, Mr. Lynch’s feelings and thoughts are strange and absolutely genius. I can conjure up a thousand feelings about watching Mulholland Drive in an instant, mostly because David Lynch trades in specificity as a window to the universal. That’s the name of the game in art, really. The details.
Mark Rothko’s paintings offer that kind of inexplicable transcendence. He’d sit with an 8’x4’ canvas in his open studio from dawn to dusk to see the way the experience shifted with the quality of light. Taking a card from Nietzsche’s adoration of music’s universal appeal, Rothko dedicated himself to creating a pure ego-less experience using only the layering of colors and simple geometric designs. He and Lynch both drove an idea to its absolute pierce-through-everything zenith. Rothko ended up killing himself because he danced too close to the edge. If not for Transcendental Meditation I’m confident that Lynch would long ago have slipped into the ruin of depression. That heartbreaking commencement address by David Foster Wallace gets at the same impossible dedication, and he didn’t come out the other side unscathed.
Great artists tell the truth, bad artists lie to you. You can feel the difference.
In my mind, truth-telling opened the path from theatre into journalism: the stripping of the superfluous, the distilling of the essential details, and the expression of the truth of a moment. I found this quote back during the hell of essay writing for grad school apps:
“I became a journalist to come as close as possible to the heart of the world.”
-Henry R. Luce
That’s what’s up. I want to get into this world. There are great, essential truths that emerge through journalism. And look, I don’t have any illusions about most of the day to day grind. The truth there involves, in my novice mind, getting at the most accurate facts. Shoveling off the garbage and communicating what’s important to a population that ought to care. Part of the agenda, really, is conveying the tale in such a way that people are more likely to care. But covering the recall of the Toyota Prius, the mechanics of the brake failure as the story unfolds might not offer a chance to articulate some mind-blowing slice of the infinite. But maybe the story of one person that crashed, the photograph of the injuries sustained, manages to wake someone up and mobilize. The picture of a sea turtle washed up on the Gulf shore, soaked in copper-colored crude oil, brought the unwieldy scale of the spill into reality for me. Art provides a frame and encourages audiences to pay attention – the subjects are elevated and brought into light, sometimes for the first and only time. Journalism should do the same thing. Every piece can’t be John Hersey’s Hiroshima. That’s a really, really good thing. But I think the ideal should be ever-present.
I believe in Buddhism, or more properly in the teachings of the Buddha. I think all suffering springs from attachment and that awareness is the only road to happiness. I also trust that with awareness comes an automatic compassion. People are at their worst when they’re ignorant and proud of it. Ignorant and so, so certain that they’ve figured it all out. There are few things on this planet more hideous than Tea Party rhetoric – its pronounced certainty and the judgment it invites. Certainty is the most dangerous force on the planet.
This was a sprawling disaster of a ramble, but you try writing coherently after four overnight shifts and an immediate return the following afternoon. Here’s the goods:
Art can drive up awareness in beautiful, infectious, transformational ways. It happens, but it’s rare – especially in this climate of mass media and rapid consumption. I believe journalism can do the same job more frequently and more deftly than art. The challenges to beliefs can be more pronounced, more direct, and more reasoned. The obstacle of making people listen remains in play, yes, but at least I can see the enemy in my sights. This environment of over-dramatic partisan reporting threatens not only the definition of truth but the opportunity for it to ever be heard. That’s the battle I’m trying to fight. I’m down to wage a war against ignorance, fix my cannon ‘gainst the enemies of truth, and gods willing get paid in the process. Also, as often as possible to remind myself of the words of a fallen soldier:
But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talked about in the great outside world of winning and achieving and displaying. The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race” — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.