Know Nothing

NB: Paper Cut Flophouse was a group blog that ran in the late aughts. Most posts were written by two contributors: me, using the pseudonym Roman Briton, and my friend Pompeston, the mastermind of the endeavor. This is a cross-posting of a post I originally wrote for PCFH; here’s a link to the original.

A full-page ad in The New Yorker. The May 21 issue. A young girl, staring confidently at the camera, smiling. The copy at the top of the page, the copy ostensibly transcribing this girl’s voice, reads: “I just saw my first Broadway show. Now I’m writing one, too.” I see this, and I just want to punch a wall or something. Is this what it’s come to? You only need to experience one of something before you’re qualified to create one of those things? The usual comparisons spring to mind, the usual clichés: brain surgery, rocket science. Ah, but yes, of course, the beauty of the arts is that you don’t need to have experienced any of them in order to create one of them. You don’t actually need to have read a single novel in order to sit down and string a hundred thousand words together. But what is writing supposed to be? Is it just self-expression? Is it just therapeutic? Is it some kind of psychic equivalent of taking a dump? You don’t have to be in awe of the pile of shit that humanity has already created in order to add your own small contribution every day. You don’t ever need to consider it. You make yours, you get rid of it, you feel better, you feel like you’ve accomplished something. Is it Weinberger who mentions casually in one of his essays that in Egypt three thousand years ago there was an entire school of poetry devoted to the subject of anxiety that everything had already been said? Everything has already been said, but if you don’t read, if you don’t go to the theater every night, if you never go to the library, if you never go all the museums you can afford, go to them over and over again, if you don’t have any awareness or knowledge of the mountain of everything that’s already been created, if all you are is empowered, then you don’t have to even know that everything has already been said, you don’t have to have anxiety about it, you don’t have to be concerned about where your play, opera, poem fits in the magnificent, aggregating, oceanic temple of what has come before, you don’t have to even worry about ever having a reader, a viewer, an audience, all you need do is sit down, and let it out, and feel better. (My conscience: Is my worrying here just one miniscule reiteration of the long war between the Classical and the Romantic?) This ad is an ad for an investment firm that funds some sort of theater program in the schools. The girl in the photograph—is she a model, or could she actually be a beneficiary of this program, could these actually be her words?—is (partly?) of African descent; I am (mostly, as far as I know, but who knows?) of European descent. Do I have a right to complain in any way about any amount of money shuffling from Wall Street to (presumably) underfunded arts programs, to kids who benefit from those programs? (From yet another corner of my conscience: What about the irony of complaining about the celebration of empowerment and self-expression on a blog post?) And yet, and yet, there’s some great wrong here. Does this have something to do with The Cult of the Amateur? (Why do I have this sinking feeling that the contemporary celebration of the untrained has something to do with a Will Rogers populism mutated by Ronald Reagan economics into a new and subtle way of keeping the citizenry crushed under the heel of its own proud ignorance?) In this same issue of The New Yorker, Louis Menand writes: “In commencement speeches and the like, people say that education is all about opportunity and expanding your horizons. But some part of it is about shrinking people, about teaching them that they are not the measure of everything. […] We want to give graduates confidence to face the world, but we also want to protect the world a little from their confidence. Humility is good. There is not enough of it these days.” Is this what’s missing? Do I want the young girl, rather, to be saying, “I just saw my first Broadway show; I feel humbled and in awe of this dying art, and I’m immediately writing my senators, even though I can’t yet vote, to urge increased funding for the arts; and I’m going to get an after-school job in order to pay for my new habit of going to see Broadway shows, because in the next few years I’m going to see a hundred of them, and then, if I’m lucky and I work my ass off, I’m going to go to Tisch, and I’ll keep writing all this while, but I’ll know, from all my reading and theater-going, that my work will surely be nothing in comparison, because as Jean Rhys said: ‘All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. And there are trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.'” But investment firms presumably don’t have any interest in funding awe; and I don’t want the world to revert to what it was before Free to Be, You and Me, because that was even worse; but maybe my real subject here is this: Shouldn’t the teaching of writing really—secretly, ultimately—be the teaching of reading?