a mind of winter

What do you say, team?
It sounds like well-worn territory.
The whole thing feels kind of trite. I say we forget it.
Is that how everybody feels?
Well, it’s fine with me.
So listen, they just aren’t into it. It’s kind of trite.
Yeah, you’re right. No problem, man.
It’s sort of hackneyed. Tried and done before.

-Wet Hot American Summer

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs

-Wallace Stevens, “The Snow Man”

On your own head and over and beyond your own heart! Now what is mildest in you must become hardest.
Whoever has always spared himself much gets sick in the end from so much coddling. Praised be whatever makes hard! I do not praise the land where butter and honey flow!
It is necessary to look away from oneself in order to see much: this hardness is needed by every mountain climber.

-Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spake Zarathustra

Today’s short post comes courtesy of my friend Brendan McGuigan, who recently wrote this:

I am fascinated by something I’ve been noticing more and more. Namely, that while very objectively ‘good’ television – such as Boardwalk Empire, say, or Deadwood – can grip me intensely, and provoke a fair amount of emotion, it is arguably ‘bad’ television that most often captures me. Buffy and Dr. Who are two great examples of that – cheesy in the extreme, bad special effects, often melodramatic writing – but I have cried more during those two shows than every Ibsen play on earth. There was a good speaker at our local TedX talk today talking about the power of theatre that presents a ‘scaffolding’, rather than trying to create an accurate recreation. War Horse was the key example, but there were others. His argument was that in doing that – rather than going for pitch perfect recreation – you end up gaining the audience’s participation in shared storytelling, by having them fill in the blanks. Whereas when going for total accuracy, audience members end up finding the flaws. I think maybe that’s partially what’s at play in shows like this – it’s obvious the creatures in Buffy or Dr. Who are rubber, so I don’t worry about their versimilitude visually, instead I look for emotional resonance. I’m fascinated by the implications of that for my own art – in YA fiction I notice things irk me most when they are trying to peg reality and are off by a bit, but I’m fine when they just shrug off any pretense of accuracy and instead focus entirely on internal consistency.

Tears are a slippery matter. Our reactions to them are so variable. If, like Robert de Niro in Analyze That, we start crying over a commercial with a kitten, something is wrong. If we never cry, something is wrong. Tears can be sentimental, redemptive, sensitive, or selfish.

The most emotional thing about Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the melodramatic narrative; although there’s some pleasure to be had from the B-movie makeup, it cripples just as many episodes as it elevates. We’ve moved away from those melodramatic narratives because they’re not “gritty” enough. (Actually, the major networks haven’t changed one bit, but I’m sure the No. 1 show on my friends’ minds right now is not Gossip Girl, but Luck.) In some cases, notably Treme, dogged viewers continue to force themselves to watch the show even when it has become so “gritty” that it no longer provides any pleasure. The motivation, given these extremes, is akin to that which inspires drinking straight whiskey and smoking cigars. As Theodor Adorno writes in Minima Moralia,

Here displeasure is raised — as pride in bearing it — unmediated, untransformed, stereotypically into pleasure: unlike wine, every glass of whiskey, every puff on the cigar still recalls the reluctance, which it must have cost the organism, to accustom itself to such powerful stimuli. According to their own constitution, the he-men would thus be what they are usually presented as in film scripts, masochists.

I remember an academic cocktail party where, while chatting with the host, I saw that she had a complete collection of Deadwood on her shelf. I mentioned that I was slogging through the third season, to which she responded brightly: “You’re ‘slogging’ through them? Oh, how odd. That’s how I relax! That’s my guilty pleasure!”

In light of this, I’m willing to admit that I might simply be cornier than other people, demanding more in the way of impossible satisfactions from the screen. Nonetheless, it’s felt this way for a long time. Four years ago, in “Why Americans Didn’t Watch The Oscars,” I wrote:

Men without emotion were so central to 2007′s heralded films. Even Joel and Ethan Coen were guilty of finding this problem more interesting than it really is: grim lands demand grim heroes, money and death have a chill touch, and the masculine cult should be celebrated and condemned. Romance becomes the sterile, pre-pubescent romances of technology and treasure: Javier Bardem blows up a car and performs surgery on himself, Denzel Washington finds a good way to transport heroin, the fields are so rich with oil that Day-Lewis gets some on his shoe.

I used to think that these intentionally bleak, unsatisfying narratives indicated a type of rebellious gesture against the whole unreal world of cinema, just like “reality TV”: they were fulfilling our unacknowledged craving for what is real, instead of what is choreographed. They would lead us to the edge of the televison, and past it, toward new forms of engagement with life.

This turns out not to be true. We don’t necessarily go from watching The Wire to doing something on the mean streets; instead, we find ways of balancing the “gritty” TV with the “fun” TV. The ironic kind of “fun” TV, by winking at us, further absolves us.

I spent about an hour of last night crying, I’m ashamed to say. It is true, as Brendan writes, that when I read A Doll’s House I’m not moved to tears. But perhaps there is another way to imagine pinnacles of great art, where they don’t produce tears. They are strong. Our tears evaporate as we read. Our real face returns.

Probably no poet wrings as many deserved tears from his fans as W. B. Yeats. But I am reminded of the epitaph he chose for himself, which I saw when I visited his grave.

Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!