Wednesday, January 7, 2009

I am Not a Toaster: The Unhelpful Cliché of Self Discovery

I have been reading books about writing fiction lately. One of recommendation that struck me was that fiction should be hyper-real. No one wants to read about the events of daily life. I suppose that is why two attempts at ‘realistic’ teen drama in the 1990’s failed.

My So Called Life (MSCL) was a depiction of the High School experience those of us who were did not live in the 90210 zip code. It didn't really work and was canceled. The genre of the realistic teen drama didn't actually work until Apatow[1] and his now famous crew gave us Freaks and Geeks (F&G) in ‘99. F&G was also canceled after a single season but Amanda and I resonated deeply with it.[2] The latter show had some really weighty, interesting themes as the basic plot line was Lindsay’s moral and social search following her rejection of God.

F&G was, without question, the better show. But for all its resonance, there was nothing in its narrative structure that matched the uncanny familiarity of Angela’s monologues in MSCL. So much of high school was internalized; thought rather than articulated. And Angela wrestled with many of the same questions that plagued me during those volatile years, in a more mature way.

The whole thing reminded me of the line in Stranger than Fiction[3] where Harold Crick describes the narration in his head, “It's a voice in my head…It's telling me what I've already done... accurately, and with a better vocabulary.” But I think the most redeeming aspect of MSCL was that themes of self discovery were sanely tempered by uncommonly thoughtful insights. Here is my favorite quote from the show:

“People say you should always be yourself, like yourself is something definite, like a toaster.”

The ubiquitous artistic polemic is that of self discovery. Film, music[4] and print all heartily recommend that no matter what ‘they’ may throw at you, you must be yourself. Art can no longer call us to an objective standard of moral good or aesthetic beauty, so it simply offers a self referential cliché.

This has always confused me. There is a sense in which I resonate with the sentiment. I am a proto-typical X-er. I value sincerity, authenticity, and transparency over etiquette and propriety, and a great many other things. But this is rarely what is meant by ‘be yourself’ or ‘be true to yourself’. It suggests that there is a Platonic form of ‘me’ that must be discovered rather than forged. It’s fatalistic. And the primary navigational apparatus we are offered for this quest is to ‘follow our hearts,’ which nicely sets up my second favorite quote from MSCL:

"It’s such a lie that we should do what's in our hearts. If everyone did what was in their hearts the world would come to an end"

One of Christianity’s most helpful resources is the warning to view the 'self' with suspicion and the ‘heart’ as a deceitful guide. Of all the things I could be, who I fundamentally am is near the end of the list. I am petty, bitter, materialistic, bigoted, arrogant, selfish, apathetic, deceitful, lazy, self serving…all in all a real fist class a** h***. That is my template, and where my heart leads. It is about as close to a worst possible scenario as I can imagine. I want to be any one but that complete waste of humanity. Fortunately, who I am is who I become and I put my hope in grace and God’s self disclosure as reliable navigators. I just may escape ‘being myself’ yet.

[1] Incidentally, how much do I wish that Apatow et al was producing great art like F&G these days instead of drivel like Knocked Up, 40 Year Old Virgin and Sarah Marshal etc…
[2] Amanda identified deeply with the 'good girl pushing social boundaries' protagonist, Lindsay. I completely identified with here dorky little brother, Sam (until Sam’s unrequited love was requited).
[3] Indisputably Will Ferrell’s Best work…and I am a Ferrell guy…maybe one of the most entertaining movies of the last 5 years.
[4] There are no less than 5 songs or albums named ‘Be Yourself’


You with us said...

I'm ashamed to say that I haven't seen either of these shows. Can someone say, "Netflix"?

I don't know if I agree with "One of recommendation that struck me was that fiction should be hyper-real. No one wants to read about the events of daily life."

Some of my favorite novels are very mundane, but beautifully written. I love an insightful intra- and introspective work.

I guess maybe I am in the minority.

Kel said...

I loved freaks and geeks. Couldn't stop watching it. I don't know if I saw myself completely in any character, although I definitely could relate to Lindsey trying to find her place. Honestly, I could watch Bill all day. He was priceless.

The thing I liked about My So Called Life, was the interaction between Angela and her best friend from Jr High. Something about that dynamic was really interesting to me. I wonder if part of it had to do with my own adjustment from being from a fairly geeky small "outcast clique" i guess, to going to college and being part of some very different groups of friends. The shift in my place in the social order from high school to college was mind-boggling to me at the time.

Also, (not having watched it in a while), I think the dialogue in MSCL is much more "painfully real" vs Freaks and Geeks, which has resonance, but I don't remember cringing with so much horror-empathy-recognition. MSCL is much more like watching "The Office". Freaks and Geeks seemed, wittier? maybe? And somehow while I could relate, I didn't feel as much pain on behalf of the characters. MSCL more than F&G reminds me of why you couldn't PAY me to go back to high school.

I do like the thoughts about "being yourself". That always seemed like such a trite and meaningless phrase. My mom's passing has me thinking a lot about who she was, and who she hoped I would become. Because she got sick so early on, we didn't get to have "adult" conversations, and that's one of the things I'm mourning.

Anyhow, both are really good shows. Will definitely rent Stranger than Fiction. Also (while I haven't watched it yet, I hear wonderful things about American Teen, a documentary about teens in high school...sort of a real life breakfast club)

stanford said...

Byranie, we watched these within the last year ourselves via Netflix (please don’t feel shame, we still haven’t seen the Godfather movies). I have this blog where I want to think carefully about culture from a theological/philosophical perspective, but I am so behind that I end up analyzing art that is decades old. Thanks for reading anyway.

Kelly, one of the things that is interesting about social networking is that it ‘flattens’ your past. The common access to relationships from different eras makes you momentarily forget where you know people from. As I read your post, I somehow imagined that we went to high school together and began searching in vein for those memories.

I really appreciate your analysis of the shows and your comparison to The Office (one of my favorites) is an excellent one. Amanda stopped watching The Office, claiming that she had enough boss related stress w/o introducing it into her free time. And Bill was the best. He always had the perfect line.

College was a social reset for me as well.

It does sound like you are going through a sort of ‘double mourning.’ For your mom’s actual presence but also for the years where she was alive but that you didn’t have complete access to her. That’s heart breaking.