Sunday, April 03, 2011

The unbearable lightness of me-ing

Thinking for a moment about a writer whose work I don't particularly enjoy though others whom I do like to read praise it highly, I started reflexively marshaling reasons for my dislike. Then I thought, why do this? Is it because I think that those who enjoy this work are seriously in error? No: I haven't paid it enough attention to ensure that my reasons are consistent or based in fact.  And why should I? If this person were promulgating serious errors of fact or logic or a depraved sensibility, a contra might be worthwhile.

But what's really behind this impulse, at least in this case, is something unsavory: a rooted belief that one's every preference is significant, worth broadcasting, cause for pride...a sign of one's superior sensibility or perception.  How can anyone like Brussels sprouts? They taste like condensed garbage.  Etc etc.  This impulse is evident on the playground: ew, you like Barney?

While writing this, I've really just been transposing a line of thought wonderfully dramatized and dissected by Milan Kundera in his novel Immortality:
An unfamiliar young woman entered the sauna and the moment she walked through the door began to order everyone about; she made them all sit closer together, then she picked up a pitcher and poured water on the stones. With much hissing, hot, steam started to rise, making the woman sitting next to Agnes wince with pain and cover her face. The newcomer noticed it, declared, "I like hot steam; it gives me that real sauna feeling," squeezed herself between two naked bodies, and at once began to talk about yesterday's television talk show featuring a famous biologist who had just published his memoirs. "He was terrific," she said.

Another woman nodded in agreement. "Oh yes! And how modest!

The newcomer said, "Modest? Didn't you realize how extremely proud that man was? But I like that kind of pride! I adore proud people!" She turned to Agnes: "Did you find him modest?"

Agnes said that she hadn't seen the program. As if interpreting this remark as veiled disagreement, the newcomer repeated very loudly, looking Agnes straight in the eye: "I detest modesty! Modest is hypocrisy!"

Agnes shrugged, and the newcomer said, "In a sauna, I've got to feel real heat.  I've got to work up a good sweat. But then I must have a cold shower. A cold shower! I adore that!  Actually I like my showers cold even in the morning. I find hot showers disgusting."

A page later, our reflective sixty-something heroine Agnes takes a rather compassionate view of this attempt to assert an identity:

The serial number of a human specimen is the face, that accidental and unrepeatable combination of features. It reflects neither character nor soul, nor what we call the self. The face is only the serial number of a specimen.

Agnes recalled the newcomer who had just declared that she hated hot showers. She came in order to inform all the women present that (1) she likes saunas to be hot (2) she adores pride (3) she can't bear modesty (4) she loves cold showers (5) she hates hot showers. With these five strokes she had drawn her self-portrait, with these five points she defined herself and presented that self to everyone. And she didn't present it modestly (she said, after all that she hated modesty!) but belligerently. She used passion verbs such as "adore" and "detest" as if she wised to proclaim her readiness to fight for every one of those five strokes, for every one of those five points (pp 10-12, HarperPerennial  ed).

Kundera himself may or may not regard the self as an illusion, and may not detest modesty, but he's certainly not averse to displaying his exquisite sensibility, his subtle reasoning about the psyche, his incisive satiric wit...Nor am I, to displaying my free associative capacity, my appreciation of Kundera, my self-deprecating insight into my own unlovely psychic processes..etc. etc. There's no jumping off this shadow of self assertion.

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