Friday, August 20, 2010

A Quaint, Midafternoon Panic Attack

After Jess’s heartfelt post yesterday, which is simultaneously depressing and inspiring – not to mention well-written and absolutely on point – I feel the need to lighten the mood a bit here in the land of [tk]. So I am going to share with you my current internet obsession:

It’s a potent formula for humor: ostensibly, the site’s concept reflects and caters to the lowest common cultural denominator, but its humor doesn’t fully translate unless one actually possesses an extensive knowledge of the literary canon. The Reduced Shakespeare Company relies on exactly the same equation, the same self-reflexive sort of hilarity that mocks intellectualism by relying upon it.

The success of this depends on what I have come to call, rather pretentiously, “the arc of literary development.” English majors probably embody this most concretely because they receive a formal, collegiate induction into the world of literature. Texts are treated reverently and dissected thoroughly; new depths of meaning are plumbed as undergraduates get used to their instruments of theory. There is an exhilarating sensation of power as students realize that they can distill insight and meaning from almost anything.

But then, somewhere along the way, the bubble pops: the novelty abates, and though the principles and concepts remain and are respected, the constant anticipation of discovering something mind-blowingly new no longer dominates. Intellectual voraciousness is now tempered by cynicism and world-weary experience, an acknowledgment that almost everything ever created by humanity is in some way inspired by just three main motivations and preoccupations of the human consciousness: sex, God, and death.

Stripping down the canon like this is perversely pleasurable. Yes, writing can be beautiful and breath-taking and transportive, but underneath its dazzling trappings lie recycled dilemmas that are can be absurd in their predictability. When boiled down to their core, the books to which we attach such great cultural import often reveal themselves to be bizarrely base and trivial.

This might seem an awful, or even heretical, position for someone who works in publishing to hold. Maybe it is. But if I’m honest with myself, it’s partly a mechanism of denial for me, an effort to compensate for the loss of my literary innocence. On one level I laugh at McSweeney’s “Ten Reasons We’re Not Going To Grad School,” but on another I desperately yearn to once again feel that intellectual invincibility, that feeling that the meaning of the world and life can be mine for the taking.

And now look. We’re all depressed again. So go back to that website and laugh yourself up a storm before cracking open a copy of One Long Sentence About Handjobs. At least this time around, you won't have to write any papers when you've finished it.

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