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Cheesism: How Sentimentality Helps and Hinders America

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What do Bill Maher and I have in common? We have tiny little razor blades all over our tongues. (You know, metaphorically.) But when Maher’s 2003 stand-up show, Victory Begins At Home, was on TV the other night, I only watched for as long as my jaw could stand being perpetually dropped. Maher’s political views are excruciating, but they’re also pretty astute. So his remarks about Guantanamo detainees, hijackers, and the president may border on getting him arrested, but then again, he’s a libertarian. (There has to be a better word for it than that.)

No one gives a damn about political correctness anymore, but Bill Maher is the only proof of that. OK, not the only proof, but in a population of hundreds of millions, it certainly seems that way.

As a Kinder, I spent summers in Nova Scotia watching Bill Maher’s talk show, Politically Incorrect, on a tiny television in a cabin built by my grandfather. Nature and nurture aligned at about two in the morning after I had drunk beer mixed with tequila with a longtime family friend and vaguely homophobic “boy next door.” Maher was subtler back then, or else his contextual lodging in Canada gave that impression to Anglophiles like myself. I was accustomed to hearing States-bashing from the other side of the pond from such disparate voices as a drunk girl in a pub to Members of Parliament.

I was that drunk girl in the pub. Having to tell people I went to an American school nearly brought tears to my eyes. Tears of embarrassment. (“Where’s your accent?”) I was a fraud. A displaced refugee who just happened to live in a million-dollar duplex in St. John’s Wood.

Imagine my astonishment when Bush was elected president. It gave me and millions of other closet “radicals” the chance to be outspoken. Radicalism (read: democracy) became commonplace, a colloquial expression of political thought, the norm. The Internet gave rise to even more of it: blogorrhea was born. Outspokenness and political incorrectness were acceptable because our president did it all the time — still does, of course.

And even before Bush’s reign got ugly, imagine my astonishment when I realized that Wesleyan University, my father’s would-be alma mater (he instead ended up “majoring in” some Scottish lass, which required “studying abroad” in Edinburgh,) was a haven for politically-minded, confused, cynical people with rich parents and tight pants. So there existed a place inside America where Americans could talk openly about how they hated their fellow countrymen while under the guise of being politically correct and tolerant of everybody else. A kind of self-deprecating modesty, if you will. Could that mean it was possible for them to, if provoked, speak openly about how they hated other countrymen? If we were so liberal, surely we had the balls to criticize humans, not just Americans. What was the difference between ‘having political balls’ and getting chastised? There was only one way to find out.

I had a column during my senior year at Wesleyan in the bi-weekly paper, the Wesleyan Argus. It ran the course of one semester, and it endured even after a piece in which I barraged Jonathan Safran Foer for his angelic, politically immune book topics (for those of you who don’t know, Foer’s first book was about the Holocaust, and his second, September 11th.) Was Foer, I asked, consciously plotting to discuss topics he knew people would enjoy? And, by enjoy, I mean relish the opportunity to talk mournfully about it until the cows (soldiers in Iraq) came home? OK, if it wasn’t conscious, could it have been subconscious?

As it turns out, Foer is a sweetheart who doesn’t eat meat, is modest and shy, and loves his grandmother. It took a live reading at Barnes and Noble for me to realize that. I still refuse to read Extremely Loud and Incredibly Up Close, the less popular 9/11-themed follow-up to Everything Is Illuminated, which I did read. That doesn’t mean I don’t respect it, you know, the way I respect my ex-boyfriend’s current squeeze. Hey, good for you for moving on, but I don’t want to hear anything about your “follow-up,” especially how politically correct it is.

As it turned out, there were people attuned to Foer’s good-natured, do-gooder, goody-two-shoes persona(lity) long before I was. Correction: there was one person. A girl who could not speak English very well wrote a “Wespeak” (read: liberal rant) in the paper in response to my column, telling me how “extremely amazing and incredibly good” Jonathan Safran Foer’s books were. Needless to say, I was not convinced. She seemed to be protesting too much. And what I got the most of after that brief fallout was applause. People in computer labs at three in the morning would lean over in their swivel chairs and whisper, “I loved your piece about the Jews.”

But I did realize, after asking for and receiving my professor’s chastisement, that it was completely inappropriate to critique something I had not read.

So how about something I have? I just read the story in this week’s New Yorker about a couple who gave birth to a stillborn after a hopeful eight-month pregnancy following a previous miscarriage. It was a deeply affecting story, told by the husband, Daniel Raeburn, in a tone that was alternately melodramatic and gratingly scientific. Lugubrious, overwrought metaphors were followed by analytical, unemotional lists of facts — near rejections of everything that had come in the first category, and vice versa. Was the message that nothing about grieving is systematic or linear, that, after the fact, the writer of such misery can gain no superior or solid position on the topic? This was the thesis I garnered, and it was an arduous process to get there.

I found myself — more guiltily now, because of how much the article affected me — asking whether this piece had been accepted into the pages of the magazine precisely because of its content regardless of the flawed writing (there were subtle, arguable grammatical errors, which in my meanest moments, I decided were there to lend the work “artistic meaning.”) Was the author a writer full time? Did it matter? Well, yes. From the contents I deduced that Daniel Raeburn “is writing a book about literary comic books entitled The Imp of the Perverse, to be published next year. He lives in Chicago.”

And his daughter was stillborn. Raeburn included in his article an anecdote about Hemingway, in which the esteemed king of brevity was challenged to compose a six-sentence novel and came up with, “Baby shoes for sale; never worn.” I appreciated the inclusion, but I, (and perhaps Raeburn) have an inkling that Hemingway is always going to do it better even though he is dead and you (Raeburn, one) are still alive and have forty-odd years to try to surpass him.

Personal experience is the most valuable commodity in literature these days; it is also the most controversial and the most plentiful. It stirs up all kinds of political turmoil, as in the case of Oprah and Frey. It stirs up all kinds of revenue, as in the case of the memoir in general and James Frey in specific.

And it pisses a lot of people off. How many times do we need to hear about your abusive, drug-ridden childhood? How many times to we need to hear about what a stillbirth did to your marriage? We have Jhumpa Lahiri’s short-story about the miscarriage to do that. We have Hemingway’s novel. And anyway, did this even happen to you? Or is it truthiness that got you the million-dollar advance?

Raeburn alternately whispers and yells the following adage: the truth matters. But it’s a case-by-case issue. Sometimes, truthiness and lies are more evocative, more informative, and more important. But sometimes, truth reigns supreme. I’m not shrinking away from Bill Maher’s worthy platform when I say that Raeburn may have gotten it right — this time. What I learn from Maher is not to feel sorry for people just because you think you’re supposed to. Those people may not deserve it. Question political correctness because it’s a blanket term, and when you’re under the blanket, it’s awfully hard to see.

But what harm is going to come from feeling sorry for Daniel Raeburn and his wife? Cynics, myself included, will answer that we are already such a sentimental nation, consumed by nostalgia. But how sentimental can we really be if more than fifty percent of us agreed to go to war with Iraq? So we can preserve our cheesy memories? So no one can take them away from us? They’ve already tried to.

The compulsion to share one’s tragedy has undoubtedly been within us all for centuries; it’s only that the compulsion has become more accessible, more lucrative, and thus more dastardly, in recent years. Raeburn’s vapid details in some of the article may be an effort to quell the sentimental stigma associated with his plight, which he indulged elsewhere. But why get the story out there? To tell the well-educated, mostly white readers of the New Yorker who may have lost their children that they’re not alone? To confront the grotesque mystery of the human body head-on?

I don’t feel sorry for Daniel Raeburn. I feel sorry for myself for having the incapacity to understand his experience, even after having it so thoroughly excavated upon the pages of a magazine that reaches none of the people who really “matter.” Everybody matters, but “everybody”‘s off reading The Da Vinci Code, or A Million Little Pieces, and the rest of them are watching Bill O’Reilly. Those of us who want to preserve the sentimentality of this nation from the “unforgiving” radicals of Arab nations are going to church, praying for the soldiers in Iraq, and watching United 93.

In other words, we’re not doing anything helpful. It’s only those who have experienced tragedy first hand who are doing something more worthwhile than living vicariously through the tragedy for its shock-and-awe entertainment value. But all those first-handers are doing is indulging everyone else’s vicarious curiosity. What are the readers of the New Yorker and watchers of Bill Maher doing besides blogging, I’d like to know? I’m just as guilty of lassitude as the next La-Z-Boy. So we Americans have more in common with each other than we thought. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Privilege doesn’t have to be a handicap.

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About Liz

  • While ‘you’ were sleeping, the world has been getting flatter.

    Interesting ramble, but remember, they also serve who stand and wait.

  • sharon

    i couldn’t agree less.

  • Elizabeth,

    I don’t mean to sound obtuse, but what were you writing about? The only term that seemed to have any relevance to what I was reading was the term “blogorrhea”.

  • Liz

    Ever heard of constructive criticism, Ruvy?

  • Liz,

    I apologize if I seemed harsh, but I had a very hard time making heads or tails of what you had written.

    Obviously you had an intent in what you wrote, but aside from a long collection of vaguely interrelated thoughts, I could not make out that intent.

  • Liz

    Ruvy, I’m sorry you feel that way, but your comments about this post are easily more negligible than the post itself. Look elsewhere if you want to needlessly criticize someone. This isn’t a competition, or a venue for personal attack. You must have something better to do than rack up your Blogcritics comment score.

  • If Raeburn’s essay is nothing but vapid sentimentality, then what are the murders and tragedies and moralizing speculations and pontifications that fill the cable news networks night after night? So Americans are prone to rubbernecking and relish a chance to wallow in someone else’s intense emotional trauma, fine, but I just can’t agree with your argument that Raeburn should fall under your blanket condemnation of sentimentality or melodrama.

    Certainly the piece is shot through with emotion, but it seemed to me that he marked, evaluated, and rejected a good portion of the easy, banal, and expected cliches of grieving that are so prevalent in the personal tragedy narratives you’re so weary of.

    Personal experience is a commodity, by definition, but the self-awareness required to understand it, and the facility to communicate it with words are not. I thought Raeburn articulated a far greater sensitivity to the emotional landscape of parents (and expecting parents) than many/most parents whose kids are still alive.

    That said, how self-absorbed and narrow to assume the function of a piece of writing is to get someone to feel sorry for the writer. Never mind that Raeburn’s starkness and anti-sentimental passages seemed to reject even the possibility of such an objective. Isn’t the point of writing–particularly about a personal experience–to explore and shed light on that experience, to make more sense of it for oneself, and then/also/ultimately to translate that into words in such a way that someone who HASN’T had that experience can better understand it? Or so that she can better understand herself and her own POV and how she communicates it?

    Because ultimately, the cynicism and flippancy of this post–and the very idea that one writer’s account, whether it’s Hemingway, Lahiri, or Raeburn’s, is somehow “enough” can’t be serious (RIGHT??), but has to be just a provocative argumentative tool–betrays some kind of deeply unsettled sense of self. It shows a highly developed sense of self-absorption, and a classic lib.ed. obsession with self-examination, but there are still some real blind spots. So good luck with that.

  • andrea thies

    as the mother of a stillborn daughter, I would never wish my pain on anyone. However, Raeburn’s article no matter how poorly conceived, written, or riddled with poor grammar to your opinion can take away from the comfort it has given to many.

    Once you experience such loss and saddness you begin to not care so much about the little things.

  • cyndi

    First time reader here. I think personal stories (truthiness) are the real ones…and you may say we’re sentimental (I think we’re barbaric, where’s the uprising & moral outrage over Guantanamo etc?) but what’s the other option? To look the other way? We’re good at that. Maybe you don’t like truthiness, pain, or other people’s pain.

    It’s good for people to know this is still a common problem. When I had my stillbirth I think many were shcoked, at a loss, etc. If nothing else, the story brings the commonality of the experience to light and may help friends and family to understand something their loved one has gone through.

    It’s also an interesting issue in terms of prolifers etc because as laws change I may have been left to die of an infection as my child died inside me.

    Gross? Sure. Unsavory? Yes. Thats’s life.

    And lest you really piss off a female friend one day, a miscarriage is NOT a stillbirth (re: your Lahiri comment.) Lots of stories about love, life, death, so no reason there can’t be a huge library of birth tragedies either.

    I just don’t understand what bothered you except that the story is depressing.

  • Melissa

    As the mother of a stillborn child I truly believe your thoughts will change when a stillbirth affects you or your family. For the families stillbirth affects hearing someone elses story is part of healing. Who cares if the grammer is poor? When someone else shares their darkest moment we should be careful of passing judgement on them… it could be you someday.