Commercial Grammar

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The other night I saw a commercial for Polident denture cream. There’s a guy in a lab coat, a pretend dentist, who’s saying that a lot of people treat dentures like teeth even though dentures are much softer and more porous than teeth. Dentures, the guy tells us, are different to teeth. But why should I listen to him? Why should I even be able to stand him? Different to? This makes me nuts. Okay, so in England — the British Isles — it is acceptable to pair these words together, but we’re not in England. We spell realize with a z and not an s. We don’t have a monarchy. We are more discreet about our prejudices. In sum: we are different from the British. We might even be different than the British. But we are certainly not different to the British. What we are, I fear, is dumber than the British. Or getting dumb thanks to media that institutionalizes bad grammar. Ever seen that commercial for Burger King’s new line of fries? Forget what gross measures BK has taken to modulate its fry-frying technique, and focus on the message: Forty percent less fat, thirty percent less calories. If you want to get into it, there’s reason to argue that less in some contexts can be applied to countable plural nouns. Just not this one. Why couldn’t they have said: Less fat, fewer calories? Why? Because it’s not as punchy, not as advertisy, and not as indifferent to proper grammar, which is fast becoming a hallmark — even a badge of honor — for people trying to woo each other. Want to sell me something? Great, just be sure to put on your idiot face, first.

I have read a lot of dating profiles. A lot. Infer from this what you will while I make the following observation: no one equates proper grammar with sex appeal. On the contrary, the worse your punctuation, the more confident you seem that strangers will want to have sex with you. Does anyone on these websites know the difference between you’re and your? There and their? I teach creative writing to undergraduates and am frequently — daily — appalled by how bad their command is of basic language skills. Fast forward twenty years and I am seeing these same people advertise themselves on OkCupid. I love to travel. Its just my thing.  Reluctant non-conformist, verging on the anarchist. AKA, “a prick”. Aka a truant, since this guy obviously skipped that class on punctuation and its placement. Here’s one I like: I’m “well educated”. It’s gotten so bad that one guy, in the “what are you looking for” section, writes: “A woman who knows the difference between its and it’s.” To me that’s like saying I want to date a person who knows the alphabet. When did the bar drop so low? And, really, why do I care? On the spectrum of world problems that need bemoaning, is bad grammar really one of them?

Yes. Yes it is.

For a lot of people, good grammar is like the opera — elitist and snobby. Never mind that opera tickets cost less than the nose-bleeders at almost any sporting event in the country or that the stories in opera are as Everyman as it gets: boy meets girl, boy loses girl. It’s all about perception. And if you say less fat, fewer calories, maybe people get the idea you are pretentious, and if pretentious, unpalatable. This is why so many of us don’t use capital letters when we email — because it looks stuffy. Which would all be fine were it not the case that bad grammar falls into the same category as bad prose writing, which heralds the depredation of our culture and the exaltation of fascism. Seems like a bold statement, and it is, until you reread George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” which seems every bit as urgent today as it must have in ’46 despite fascism’s being less potent now than it was then. In the essay, Orwell contends that imprecision (and what is poor grammar but the handmaid of imprecision?) allows propaganda to thrive. Imprecision allows you to say one thing when you really mean another, or at least to obfuscate whatever it is that you do mean. Imprecision favors political conformity by relieving all of us of the burden to think. When’s the last you heard a politician who made you think? All you heard were the same hackneyed phrases and idioms that say, in essence, go to sleep now, the machine’s well-oiled. As Charles Baxter writes in his wonderful essay “On Defamiliarization,” the kingdom is running smoothly because no one is learning anything.

Orwell was not actually all that big on grammar, though his grammar was impeccable. His bugbear was the debasement of the language thanks to dead metaphors, familiar phrases, euphemism, and vagueness. But I think bad grammar is equally dangerous. A commercial for Hill’s Ideal Balance dog food fear-mongers by telling me that my dog’s diet has too little vitamins. Gah, mini vitamins in my lab’s bowl! Guess I should run to the pet store right now. Similarly, next time a hurricane rolls into town and the government fails to provide adequate remuneration for people whose lives have been destroyed, I will be well pacified by the language coming out of Capitol Hill. Why worry? We’re stronger to the storm.

The Artist and the Fly

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Put yourself in her shoes. She is a performer. She is slim and poised and recondite insofar as her comportment seems to withdraw her from the rest of us, who are mortal and dim in contrast. I am fixated on a shred of almond skin wedged between my teeth. I am worried about a flap of cuticle come loose from my nailbed. I am in the audience at the New York Public Library for a celebration of the director Robert Wilson’s 70th birthday. The performer is joined by other luminaries — Rufus Wainwright and Lou Reed. Each has something hagiographic to say about Wilson. Lou Reed previews his collaboration with Metallica, citing Wilson as its impetus. Wainwright is forced to sing a cappella when the audio system craps out, proving that his voice really is that good. The performer recites a passage from Wilson’s collaborative opera with Philip Glass, Einstein on the Beach. She has the text in front of her, but she does not need it; she’s had this part memorized for years. Her recital is lovely, and the lilt and cadence of her voice are mesmerizing. But then halfway through, something happens that gets me thinking about artistry and solipsism and the fallout of one marrying up with the other.

What happens is: A giant fly begins to circle the performer’s face. She is wearing a bone microphone, which amplifies the buzz as this fly alights on her forehead. Her nose. Her eye and even on the microphone head, itself. The buzzing is so loud, it feels like this fly is in my own ear canal. So. Put yourself in her shoes and what would you do? Swat the fly. Ten out of ten of you swats the fly. Gets up. Stops reciting. What none of you do is carry on as if unaware of the fly. As if possessed of such composure, you are the most unflappable person on earth. The very essence of the show must go on. Lucinda Childs finished reciting without having acknowledged the fly in any way. The library might have caught on fire — hell, the entire city might have caught on fire — but Childs would carry on. Unperturbed. Impregnable.

I have thought about this moment in the library with pathological intensity since then. I have told the story of the Artist and the Fly many times, but always with the same awe. Awe and anxiety because the degree of professionalism on display in Childs’s refusal to admit the fly into her dispatch of Einstein on the Beach seemed to encroach on a category of behavior that doesn’t, for instance, concede the fly exists at all.

Now, I am not claiming that Childs is, herself, a solipsist (if you watch the video, you can see her flinch ever so slightly) but that she performed a brand of solipsism that is anathema to what art does so well, which is to engage, however obliquely, with the fraught stuff of our lives. Art that does not do this — art that cannot see past itself — is gospel. Propaganda. It is removed and distant and wholly ineffective when it comes to providing us with a chance to take shelter in each other’s humanity.

I left the library feeling uncomfortable. And a little depressed. After all, Childs was just doing her job. Childs was just doing what most of us artists are taught to do, which is to preserve what John Gardner has famously called the “fictional dream” — the sustained and vivid universe of a novel or story that is successful only if it resists puncture. The “fictional dream” does not acknowledge itself; it does not acknowledge us. Ninety percent of fiction operates with the “fictional dream” in mind. My fiction operates with the “fictional dream” in mind. So what, exactly, is the problem?

Well, okay, perhaps I can best answer this by thinking through our romance with bloopers. Turns out I have a friend who watches blooper reels with some frequency. On YouTube, where a search for “bloopers” turns up 11,900,000 results while a search for “cats” — and who doesn’t love a cat video? — turns up a mere 11,400,000 results. Bloopers appeal to people because they are genuine. And more importantly, they are genuine precisely because they break form. They expose artistry as a sham and, in so doing, relieve the anxiety of distance that attends all our experiences of art. My friend watches bloopers when he doesn’t know what to do with himself. He says they orient him. That they remind him people are real and he is real, which is by way of tethering us to each other.

Naturally, then, many artists have decided that one solution to the problem of art and artifice is to recreate the effect of a blooper. Hence the long tradition in the arts of breaking the fourth wall on purpose. Shakespeare did it with aplomb. I’m thinking of Henry V (and of course a Midsummer Night’s Dream) where Henry and Puck, respectively, apologize for the plays’ shortcomings or at least beg for our indulgence. I’m thinking of Tristram Shandy and Don Quixote, which are overtly aware of themselves as art. I’m thinking of the Muppets, whose “Pigs in Space” skit always had the astro-swine shocked whenever the skit’s theme music played (which trope was picked up and amplified by the lyrics of the theme song for “It’s Garry Shandling’s Show”: “This is the theme to Garry’s show, the opening theme to Garry’s show, this is the music that you hear as you watch the credits.”) I’m thinking of the many many novels that toy with themselves as novels, which is all by way of foregrounding how deficient art must be when it comes to representation.

More recently, I am reminded of House of Cards, which I watched obsessively over three days a couple months ago. Do the math, that is four+ shows a night. Kevin Spacey, whom I last saw play Richard III at BAM, plays Francis Underwood, who is Richard’s equal for monomania and malice. And just like Richard, Underwood frequently breaks the action to soliloquize the audience. He tells us what he’s thinking. He tells us who everyone is. He makes us accomplice to his plans just for being privy to them. To start his first address to the audience in episode one, he looks at the camera and says, “Oh!” as if startled to find us there watching him or perhaps startled to have forgotten we were there. The gambit is designed to immerse us more completely in his universe, though it actually has the opposite effect of reminding me that his universe is not real.

You’d think, given my reservations about the fictional dream, that I’d find comfort in these metafictions. That I’d feel closer to these works for being acknowledged by them. But I don’t. On the contrary, I generally find them ridiculous. Whenever Francis soliloquizes the screen, it seems ridiculous! When Shakespeare enacts what the academics call “medium awareness,” it feels too clever by half. And if I read one more novel that pokes fun at its being a novel, I might cry. Look at me, I am art! I am foregrounding problems of representation! Work like this often feels more egocentric and solipsistic than art that just leaves it alone.

My friend who watches bloopers thinks the problem here is about responsibility and distance. The fictional dream allows us to abdicate responsibility: we can turn ourselves over to a knowing authority and check our incredulities at the door. But the dream, for being a dream, can also distance us from the very thing the dream depicts, no matter how seamlessly it is done. Alternately, the bloopers reel and self-reflexive fiction feel intimate though perhaps onerous for burdening us with evidence that our lives are real, and that real life is hard.

And so, a problem that can be recast as a debate about the efficacy of art. One the one hand: art has an asymptotic relationship with “truth,” with the world, so that to be an artist necessarily means to be a failure. Always and only a failure. On the other hand is an idea advanced by Tim O’Brien, who is endlessly quoted in this context — “Fiction is the lie that helps us understand the truth” — and hailed for his notion that “story truth” is a highly manipulated version of the real deal that equals and often exceeds the real deal’s power of effect.<

O’Brien neuters the problem of artifice and remove by recasting them as assets in the project of isolating and dramatizing what is powerful in our experience of life. Who needs to see someone swat madly at a fly when you can better experience its pathos (e.g., an elegant woman accosted by the humdrum) in a play or novel that will do it better? Such, at least, is what Tim O’Brien might say.

And what I say, too, thanks to the following experience I had at the Metropolitan Opera, where I saw Don Carlo a few months ago. In the first act, Don Carlo and his betrothed sing of their love. They are in a forest and Don Carlo, being the gentleman that he is, makes a fire. A real fire, on a flammable stage at the Met. Ten minutes later, a man in jeans and T-shirt marched onstage with a fire extinguisher. He didn’t look at the audience, he even seemed bored, but in front of a full house, while the singers were performing, he blasted the fire and walked off. At first, I thought he was part of the production. Don Carlo finds out his fiancée is actually intended for his father (ah, opera), at which point some guy destroys the emblem of their love. It seemed apt. Quickly, though, I realized this was not part of the plan. The audience started to laugh. I was sitting three rows from the pit, so I could see the conductor (full disclosure, the conductor was Lorin Maazel, who is my father) carry on as if nothing had happened. Meantime, the stagehand, whose intentions were good, did not actually manage to put out the fire. Instead, he left it smoldering, so that the stage began to fill with smoke. How can you sing when your lungs are filled with smoke? But the performers sang on, though the soprano had to turn her back to the audience (possibly to stifle a laugh) while the tenor seemed less than committed to the moment. They did not swat the fly but they did acknowledge the world’s intrusion on their art.

The upshot? I felt badly for the singers. I felt badly for my dad. And I felt somewhat self-conscious about being at the opera, whose pretensions and artifice were made uppermost thanks to the stagehand. But mostly, for that moment, I felt cheated of the magic that is Don Carlo. A three-hour disquisition in song on the big, human feelings: love, grief, rage, despair. Which is when I began to feel good about art that refuses to concede I am alive.

From Einstein on the Beach: “These are the days my friends and these are my days my friends.” So long as art continues to record those days, why should it have to acknowledge my days in particular? I don’t need to be noticed in the moment, just in the main. I am, after all, but a fly. One among many. So, yeah, don’t mind me. Carry on.

Image: Pexels/Pixabay.

A Year in Reading: Fiona Maazel

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This book is a lot smarter than I am. It’s a lot smarter than most of us. And yet smart really isn’t the word I want to describe the thing—this memoir or novel, who cares what it is—so much as dismantling. Dismantling of its author and anyone who decides to pick through what feelings come loose. I Love Dick is a chrestomathy of experience that schools us in abjection and desire. It’s about the filmmaker Chris Kraus and her husband, Sylvère Lotringer, who, together and apart, fall into an unrequited threesome with the eponymous Dick after one dinner with him at a sushi bar in Pasadena. Unrequited insofar as Dick becomes an off-scene repository for the stuff of Chris and Sylvère’s marriage (they write him letters) and, later, for the stuff of Chris—what she talks about when she talks about love. There is art, genocide, schizophrenia; there is Simone Weil, Flaubert, activist Jennifer Harbury, and artist R.B. Kitaj. The book is full of allusion—“Does analogy make emotion less sincere?” No!—and adventures in form (180 pages of letters—some from Chris, some from Sylvère, some from both—alongside third-person interludes) that make this one of the messiest, most honest, and epic revelations of self out there.

Eileen Myles, in her forward to my edition, calls I Love Dick a cunty exegesis (now there’s a phrase that rolls off the tongue), and though the book is absolutely engaged with the subject of female desire, I think it’s more about the psychic experience of failure—its appeal and fallout. As Kraus writes, “If art’s a seismographic project, when that project meets with failure, failure must become a subject, too. Dear Dick, That’s what I realized when I fell in love with you.” And what I realize whenever I think about what seems so disappointing apropos form in contemporary literature, apropos its sense of order and through-line and ease of consumption, which is its disregard for failure as one of the most—if not the most—vital and inevitable experiences of being alive. To be honest about failure, to make of its role a case study, is always going to be a messy affair. Kraus quotes the poet David Rattray—“Honesty of this order threatens order”—and, if you push it far enough, as Kraus does, it turns form away from order and towards an intermingling of the raw, the troubling, the ecstatic.

More from a Year in Reading 2010

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