Monday, January 07, 2008

That One Kind of Disease

Another general fault in conversation is, that of those who affect to talk of themselves: Some, without any ceremony, will run over the history of their lives; will relate the annals of their diseases, with the several symptoms and circumstances of them; will enumerate the hardships and injustice they have suffered in court, in parliament, in love, or in law. -- Jonathan Swift, Hints Toward an Essay on Conversation

So it may have been, then, that such conversations were themselves a sort of illness. However, we now speak of our illnesses together. Of course, we have treatment groups, discussion circles, web forums, and all sorts of informal and formal groups to meet up with one another and average our diseases. By pooling them, like mad insurance companies, we ameliorate them.

More than that, though, we can also share a disease in another way. Do I have proof for this? Yes, I do.

Loads of folks have wondered what, exactly the obsession is with "divas" and the miseries of celebrities. I've wondered, as well. I have preferred not to think too ill of my countrymen. After all, I know that Faustina Bodoni was all the rage in 1728. Poor Ann Cargill washed up, naked, with an infant in her arms in 1784. People were interested in Edmund Kean/Carey's parentage. Don't even ask about John Ruskin's "salon," Christina Rossetti's company kept, or, the greatest of them all, Byron's affairs and postage (Leslie Marchand has a nice long bit on whether a spurned woman sent him hair from a particular part of her body or not).

In other words, it's not new. Inside Access has always been with us, and the prurient and vain interest in vain and pallid celebrities has been a lamentable fact of society for ages and ages. I would imagine that Eloisa was the Britney Gwefani of her day. In fact, we can go back to the scandal of Thisbe wanting to sneak around with that boy at the trysting tree, if we want.

Not, of course, that I want to conflate drunken pudenda exhibition with romantic tragedy. In fact, the big stories that kept being told, like Abelard's, have something else involved than just shame and misery, as shame and misery are commonplaces. Nor, though, do I accept that people like to watch Chistina adopt Madonna's babies because they are themselves leading degraded lives and want to look down on someone.

Instead, I would like to see celebrity as a show that appeals to pity and fear. Audiences to these real degradations can cheer for the heroes and heroines, can shout, "Oh, no, Lindsay! Don't go out with him!" They can invest in the stock of the celebrity, much like people playing rotisserie league baseball. Every Monday, thousands of people, mainly men, turn to the sports page and feel that their investments have paid off variously by seeing professional athletes performing across teams in various sports, while that night millions of people, mainly women, tune into television shows to find out how one Perilous Pauline or another has fared with her rehabilitation and how another Glamorous Glenda has married.

There is another quote, and I can't be sure it's accurately attributed, much less offer a citation, but I heard it this weekend on a quiz show. Supposedly, T. S. Eliot said that radio is a device that allows thousands of people to listen to exactly the same junk at the same time and yet still feel lonesome.

I worry about that quote, because I cannot imagine Eliot, who ditched his Americanisms as thoroughly as he could, using "lonesome," or "junk." At the same time, the sentiment of the quote sounds right for Eliot, and right for me. In fact, it is an acute observation. Those who watch television or listen to the radio are experiencing precisely the same things at the same time, and yet they do so passively and yet feel entirely alone. The television set, more than the radio set, says, "You are the only person in the world, and I am showing this to you." Couples sit on the couch together, and each sets eyes on the television, each receiving a private experience. Like audience members at the theater, the television viewer is constructing a private experience out of stimuli that force themselves upon her.

Lonesome, though? Despite longstanding principles, I looked the word up in the dictionary. Oddly enough, the dictionary saw a distinction between "lonesome" and "lonely." The former is more affective. A person who is "lonely" is only sad at definition #3, where a person who is "lonesome" is sad right off the bat.

Eliot's radio has the listener feeling sad, where I would have said that the television victim is merely lonely. Such a person is unconscious of being lonesome. However, like a big barmecidal plate of Splenda, the privately constructed hors d'oeuvre leaves the viewer even more empty than before, because now time has passed and appetite increased. The viewer, therefore, needs even more spectacular scenes, perhaps.

When we watch the miseries of the celebrities, we get the miniature engagement of catharsis, but with no communal sense to exercise it. The classic model of tragedy requires not just pity and fear (or fitty, if you prefer (and let no one think that these operatic plots belong only to Hollywood celebrities, for the rap world's "beef" operas are every bit as involved)), but also an elevated hero. The causes have to be mighty, and the consequences have to be extraordinary, if we're to have true tragedy, and that means that more than the personal has to be at work. Even when German Expressionist film did kammerspiel with things like my favorite film of all time, The Last Laugh, or the Italian neo-realists did things like The Bicycle Thief, the themes were consciously shaped to be beyond the personal, and the artists worked at creating elevation to the subjects (although they denied it). No. To be tragic and pity-ful, we need there to be something social that we can do or have done to us.

This is the crisis of loneliness, not tragedy. By all receiving the same story, we have a temporary involvement and a permanent vacuity. Our own participation is confined to either wagers of good will or seeing ourselves in the celebrity.

On the other hand, we can participate with that other great paradox of loneliness: the web. Here, and I include myself at this very moment, we can pursue individual courses and believe ourselves utterly self-determining, and yet only show free choice, not free will. If we take the final step and contribute and "create content" with Wikipedia or a forum, we toss in our little bits of self into the giant bucket.

We again average ourselves. We pool ourselves. We take comfort in the fact that we are all alone together and that we are individually like the rest.

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