Sunday, July 21, 2013

Highbrow vs. Lowbrow: Why Literature is Bad for You

I’ll be honest—it’s been a grim summer for reasons I don’t want to get into here. A long, hot, ugly, depressing, relentlessly stress-filled summer. My attempts to escape my problems and my semi-mid-life crisis through literature have only made it worse with my recent reading of the acclaimed novel “The Woman Upstairs.”  It’s about a woman named Nora who is a passionate yet failed artist, an elementary school teacher embittered by the choices she’s made and the choices that have been made for her. She’s self-pitying and stubborn, giving but angry about the lack of rewards her sacrifices have brought her, creatively blocked, full of untenable longing, and for all of her dutifulness, a rather selfish person. I hate to say that I relate to such a difficult character, but I relate to her so much it’s painful.

Yesterday, one of passages in the book really struck me. It described a holiday assembly at Nora’s elementary school, a beautifully rendered scene that immersed me in the warm, mystical world of the young children and their doting teachers. It seemed magical to me, and I was puzzled by Nora’s failure to appreciate the beauty in it.

Then I thought about my own daily life. In my desire for it to be something other than it is, have I failed to see the magic in it? How many tiny, magnificent miracles escape me every day because I waste so much time desiring things to be as I want them to be, rather than how they are? Is my willfulness, rather than forming my life more to my liking, only making it less and less bearable?

We live in a culture that has completely swallowed the Kool-Aid when it comes to the concept of self-determination. We think we have total control over our own destinies, that our choices and actions inevitably lead to a predictable outcome, that the circumstances anyone finds themselves in, good or bad, are entirely of their own making. We can’t seem to handle the idea that we don’t have total control over every aspect of our lives. We point fingers and lay blame to victims all of the time to protect ourselves from the scary idea that random negative events might happen to us, too, or that positive actions may not lead to us getting exactly what we want. We create a mythos of predictability, of action=outcome. The truth is that the amount of control we can exercise over our own circumstances is terrifyingly small. Which leads me to consider the practice of acceptance, a discipline that seems beyond my abilities, no matter how unhappy the lack of it is making me.

On a lighter note, to get away from the sun, the stupid relentless cheerful sun, Mr. Typist and I went to a big dark cavernous theater yesterday and watched the new Seth Rogan flick, “The is the End”. It was totally self-indulgent, over-the-top, completely improbable, and full of crass, juvenile, disgusting boy-humor. I loved every second of it. I haven’t laughed so hard in months. It was such a relief to have two hours away from my own head, completely immersed in its gleeful idiocy. There weren’t a lot of people in the theater and I think I laughed louder and harder than anybody else.  I was still stuck with my own sadness afterwards, but laughing until tears poured down my face was very cleansing. Lesson learned? Literature makes you think upsetting existential thoughts, and dick jokes make you laugh long time.  

--Kristen McHenry

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