“Writing about the buddist here has been public display, of course, but it’s been a public display of trying to figure something out, I’m not sure what it is – something about desire, obviously, and the trajectory of mourning – but also about boundaries, about secret/public, about embodiment and meaning, and the fragility of the ego, about the embarrassment and shame of being left or rejected, about pushing myself into ever uncomfortable spaces in writing. I’m not talking about my life here because it’s particularly interesting, it’s more the whole ‘push the personal until it’s universal’ cliché, though of course nothing is ever universal. I’m not an essentialist.” […]
“But I’ve had enough of my cyber vulnerability and honesty. It’s time to direct these forces into book projects I want to finish. So, I’m saying goodbye to the buddhist vein here. I already said that, but I mean it this time. Any more I’d have to say about this stuff needs the intense focus and discipline of Real Writing to tease it out,” Dodie Bellamy writes, in one of the blog posts that became her book the buddhist. This post comes about halfway through the book.
Luckily (and obviously) she does not make good on her promise to “say goodbye to the buddhist vein,” and in her next post she revisits this question of blog writing versus “Real Writing.” “I’ve always considered the whole Writing Practice idea as yet another example of some poets’ insufferable egotism, a total guy thing, like they think they’re such geniuses their shopping lists should be bronzed. Would these guys consider a woman blogging about her heartbreak as part of a serious writing practice? I doubt it. Is my refusing to consider this blog Real Writing an internalized misogyny?” In the post after that one, she explains the idea of the “extradiegetic” while drinking “organic unfiltered sake, the creamy white kind” (these details are so important to the Dodieness of Dodie’s writing that I can’t leave them out). “Intradiegetic refers to the reality that exists within the narrative of a movie or fiction” – plot, characters, dialogue, first-person narration – while “extradiegetic refers to elements that exist outside that narrative” – third-person narration, the musical score of a film, the audience’s preexisting knowledge of the ‘real life’ a narrative is based on, the audience’s knowledge about the lives of actors who play characters in a film. The example that Dodie gives is how Heath Ledger’s death “added a frisson” to The Dark Knight.
The example that springs most easily to my mind is: the first time I heard the song “Video Games” I was lying in savasana at Go Yoga in Williamsburg. This was during the month that Ruth and I were doing vinyasa yoga every day in an attempt to keep from going insane as we launched Emily Books. During that month we comparison-shopped for discount class deals in a way that I, as a sometimes yoga teacher, find obnoxious, but what can you do? It was the only way to afford it. In the end it was fun to experience a lot of different styles and I ended up finding out that I like dancey sweaty vinyasa more than I’d thought, even though it sometimes contradicts my training and even though I am (though I tell students there’s no such thing as “bad at yoga”) not, uh, naturally inclined towards graceful movement, let’s put it that way.
Lying on the floor and hearing this song turned out to be an amazing stroke of good luck. Having my initial experience of this stupidly controversial musician’s hit occur in a situation that was so distant from any context gave me the opportunity to know what I really thought of the song. Lana Del Rey has had so many people’s worst tendencies projected onto her that now she’s interesting for that reason alone, but as I lay there, distracted from my single-pointed relaxation by those melodramatic churchbells and catchy “Honey, is that true?s,” I made a point of memorizing enough of the lyrics so that I could Google them when I got home. And that’s how I know there’s something to her music besides blog-churned controversy and images of images of images, whereas if I’d learned the other stuff first – if my experience of Video Games had been tempered by extradiegetic factors — I’d probably be more inclined to agree with the haters. This concludes the one and only thing I will ever say about Lana Del Rey, because mirrors of mirrors of mirrors of mirrors of mirrors are boring, and there are still many beautiful flowers that haven’t yet been pressed between the pages of the Internet and I am determined to pluck as many of them as I can right now before this coffee wears off.
I loved learning the word “extradiegetic” because it allows me to explain something about blogs that I hadn’t been able to, before. Last week Molly Fischer’s essay about “ladyblogs” got way under my skin, and I dashed off a quick response to it on my blog and thought I’d be able to leave it there, but then I woke up still thinking about it the next morning, and that night I went to a party and had a fight with someone I think of as a peer but who is a lot younger than me, a fight I tried to end by saying, “Well I’m 30, so I win!” (Getting to the point where you say this is an absolute guarantee that you didn’t just win, in case you’re wondering.) We were fighting about the short memory of the Internet, and how it might legitimately be possible for something that seems so obviously like an evolution to me to seem like a devolution to someone younger. I was reminded that it’s hard for women five years younger than I am to imagine growing up in a time when the only information about being a woman came to teenaged you via a pile of dogeared Sassys in the corner of the public library. And during this fight, I started to realize that I was jealous of these young women, and maybe clinging to something that it’s time to release.
I liked that Fischer celebrated the tits-out, smelly-tamponed era at the dawn of Jezebel, which for a time was genuinely radical. I love Moe’s lost-tampon post so much. But how, I wondered, could Fischer have missed noticing that this golden age was quickly corrupted? Gawker Media employees were rewarded financially at that time based on pageviews. The line between posting your goriest, druggiest, drunkest humiliations because you’re giving everyone permission to let go of their shame around these behaviors and doing so because you’re being paid more to write about that stuff is thinner than the thinnest bloodied maxipad imaginable. Fischer sees things as going downhill from there – she focuses on the cute-overload, whimsical aspects of The Hairpin and Rookie, quoting their silliest posts, calling them conformist and slumber-partyish, missing the ways that they’re heirs to radical-era Jezebel’s most fearless, honest aspects. I didn’t pause to consider that a lot of the information that informs my opinion about these blogs is – you guessed it – extradiagetic. I only know about the circumstances surrounding Jezebel’s beautiful, bloody birth because I worked at Gawker while it was happening and because I felt the same strange tension between feeling free to (here it comes) overshare and being egged on towards it. Let me just pause to make clear that no one ever told me to do it, my bosses explicitly told me NOT to do it, and I’m sure no one encouraged Moe or Tracie to do it either. But we could see the numbers; how could we not have been influenced by them?
Also: I tend to forgive blogs their sillier moments because I understand the exigencies of being an editor tasked with pumping out a day’s worth of content and this makes me sympathetic to the idea that a blog is less a text to be teased apart the way you’d dissect a novel but a performance to be critiqued based on its peak moments.
But there’s more to it than that. I stayed so upset about this. A few days later Keith and I were talking about the essay in the kitchen and I was trying to explain what I appreciate about the Hairpin. Specifically I was trying to explain why Edith is a genius. (For the record: I’ve met Edith maybe … three times?) I said that creating a new comedic aesthetic – a new style of being funny – is a huge achievement, one Fischer didn’t give her enough credit for. We were still having a normal conversation at that point, not a fight. I started talking about the post “Women Laughing Alone With Salad,” a very popular Hairpin post Fischer dismisses in passing as representative of the Hairpin’s “observational, peculiar, and irrefutable” brand of media criticism. This post has zero text. It’s just stock photos of women, laughing, alone, with salad. There are a ton of them. They look familiar to anyone who has ever seen any advertising. “Molly Fischer reads that post as mere absurdist humor, pure whimsy,” I said. I think this is approximately when I started shouting in a tremulous, high-pitched voice:
“But HOW. Can ANY WOMAN. NOT UNDERSTAND. HOW THAT IS A COMMENTARY ON THE FACT! THAT THE REASON! THERE ARE SO MANY STOCK PHOTOS OF WOMEN LAUGHING ALONE WITH SALAD! IS BECAUSE WOMEN ARE ONLY ALLOWED TO BE SHOWN AS HAPPY!!! WHILE THEY’RE EATING!!! IF THEY’RE EATING SOMETHING “GUILT-FREE”!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
“Stop yelling at me! You’re scaring me!” said Keith. “I’M NOT YELLING AT YOU!” I yelled. A minute later I was sobbing. “I’m just so angry,” I told him. “What are you angry at?” “At everything,” I sobbed. “Well, you have to find a way to hold onto that,” he said. “I would rather not!” I sobbed.
Those photos of women finding salad hilarious are absurd, but they’re also, depending on how you look at them, a symptom of a serious horrible malevolent force in our culture that hurts and even sometimes kills (yes! kills!) women. But instead of calling them out in the classical Jezebel style of LOOK AT HOW THIS TERRIBLE THING HARMS WOMEN, GET ANGRY AND COMMENT, Edith just stacked them up in a big pile. The overall effect of this post is so subtle and so hilarious that these images’ power– instead of being exaggerated because now we’re all up in arms! comment!! — was diffused in an instant. A reader – well, let’s not generalize, this reader– goes, in those ten seconds of scrolling, from feeling secretly obscurely injured by a giant force outside her control to snickering at that force, which is revealed as idiotic and petty. That is genius. It’s also something only the blog medium, which is what Edith’s a genius of, can achieve.
What’s extradiagetic here: being aware, on some level, that a lot of the stuff that filters in through the periphery of our cultural consciousness is telling women to hate and hurt ourselves. And if Fischer and women Fischer’s age aren’t aware of this, why try to teach them how to be? If they’re not in pain, if they’re not enraged, why tell them they ought to be? Maybe I’m too attached to my anger and my pain. Maybe a lot of us are. The girls and teenagers who are growing up now with Rookie tutorials on masturbation and exhortations never to fake an orgasm at their fingertips – maybe they won’t “get” Women Laughing Alone At Salad, either. I desperately that hope they don’t, but I’m also glad it’s there for them if they need it.
I talked on the phone yesterday to an author whose book I hope we’re going to feature as an Emily Books pick soon, someone whose autobiographical novel, written in the first person, is full of lucid, skillful, sometimes frankly horrifying descriptions of exploitative sex and bulimia. “Do you think you’re crazy? I’m crazy,” she told me. “I … try to keep the different aspects of myself in balance. I like that you’re crazy,” I told her. And then I said something that I didn’t realize I believed until I said it out loud. “Women who don’t give a fuck what anyone thinks of them are crazy. But men who don’t give a fuck what anyone thinks of them are … just men.”
Obviously many men give a fuck what people think about them. But if they don’t, it doesn’t mean they’re insane. Whereas for a woman not to care – that’s actually pathological, self-destructive behavior, in the context of our culture. I love and valorize this kind of female craziness and the art it produces – I created a business to celebrate these women and their art. But I fear not giving a fuck, for myself. I wonder what it would be like to let go that much.
Today I went to PS1, which longtime readers of this blog will recognize as something I tend to do in melancholy moods. This particular museum often works for me as a way of scraping something off the lens of my whole perceptual apparatus. Something about the incredible old building it’s in and the way that building is situated — the views out its windows of ugly-gorgeous Long Island City’s big skies and schizoid new-old building hodgepodge – works for me. And I love the ancient classrooms and the ghosts of all the work that’s been in them; they ennoble whatever’s there and endow it with extra art-oomph.
I started on the second floor, enticed by a warm, carnivalesque loop of recorded music that it took a minute to place: it was the beginning of “Like A Rolling Stone.” It led me to a room with two wall-mounted speakers that on first glance seemed empty. On second glance there was a little wall plaque that read: “chicken burrito beef burrito.” And on third glance there they were on the windowsill:
In spite of not having been in a good mood a minute earlier I couldn’t help but laugh out loud. Another girl entered the room and saw the burritos. Our eyes met and she laughed too. She took a photo and I was emboldened (obviously) to do the same. The rest of Darren Bader’s work included: a disassembled oven filled with pizza, a room full of fruits and vegetables prettily displayed on plinths in a room with a sign listing times when fruit and vegetable salad would be served and a room where “celebrity sculptures” will assemble if any celebrities volunteer. Another room contained a croissant and an iguana — “iguana and croissant,” read the plaque.
And in the final room, in which only four visitors are permitted at a time, there was a couch, a stack of magazines, a PS1 employee, and three cats who are available for adoption. These are very charming cats — if you’re in the market for a cat, go get ‘em! (The iguana is also available for adoption, though it’s illegal to own one in the 5 boroughs of NYC, as I’m sure you already knew.) The obligation I felt to make awkward conversation with the PS1 employee rather than besotted babytalk conversation with a new cat friend was the only thing that dampened my enthusiasm for this artwork, which otherwise, obviously, !!!!!!
So I felt then like the museum had worked its magic. Maybe it hadn’t given me any new ideas but it was getting to be around the time I’d thought I would leave and so I made my way in the direction of the exit.
I found this unpromising – oof, sound art – but could hear strains of music coming from the gallery so I went in.
40 speakers stood in a ring around the room at almost exactly the level of my head and a single voice sang from each of them, recorded so well and reproduced so perfectly by the speakers that, when you stand near the speaker, it’s like someone is singing in your ear. Standing in the center of the room I could hear the cumulative effect of 40 voices merging: a choral piece, I guess in Latin, Deus Domine were the only words I picked out. But walking near the speakers I could hear each voice’s singular human-ness – the glorious, virtuosic trill wasted in the cumulative muddle, but also the tiny stutter, the fading weakness at the end of a held note. Maybe the most striking aspect of this artwork is the 3 minutes of recorded intermission between the 14 minutes of song: coughs and giggles and deep, resonant expectorant sniffs emanate from the corners of the room, creating the almost creepy sense that you’re surrounded by a ring of invisible people.
When I first entered the room there was no one there but me and a young male guard, but more people came in as I walked the circumference of the room. I pretended not to notice them, but I knew they were there and I became even more aware of them at the moment when, standing between two speakers at the crescendo of the motet and staring fixedly out the window, I realized that I was about to start crying and there was nothing I could do to stop it.
I didn’t sob but tears came to my eyes and squirted out uncontrollably, like sweat from a cartoon character’s brow. I wiped them away furiously with my sleeves. I wanted so badly not to be crying. How ridiculous to be moved so much by art (never mind that I had come to the museum in hopes of being moved). But I felt manipulated – “I’m so easy,” I thought. It’s true that something about the frequency at which spiritual music vibrates often makes me inexplicably, uncontrollably weepy, a phenomenon I have hesitated to explore lest I find myself having to Get Religion in some dumb time-consuming careworn-narrative way. Then I realized (this all happened in less than thirty seconds, probably) that the other reason I didn’t want to be crying was so much simpler: I just didn’t want anyone to see me crying. I was embarrassed about crying, the weakness and vulnerability that crying inevitably conveys.
I have made so many decisions based on my desire to never seem publicly weak or vulnerable.
And then I thought: what if I just didn’t care?
I thought: do any of those people care that I’m crying? Will they even notice, and will they think less of me if they do? I don’t even know them so why do I even care what they think?
And for the first time, for just a moment, I didn’t care.
And I started crying harder, because now I was crying with joy.
And when I finished crying I sat down on the bench and listened to the rest of the motet, watching seagulls swoop by outside the windows and refusing to notice whether anyone was watching me.