The Great Beauty

To look life in the face, always, to look life in the face, and to know it for what it is…at last, to love it for what it is, and then to put it away.

This quote, attributed to Virginia Woolf, keeps popping into my head since I watched The Great Beauty a couple of evenings ago. It stands in direct contrast to one of the central scenes in the film, where the protagonist Jep demolishes the hypocrisies of a friend by noting that:

We also know our untruths and for this, unlike you, we end up talking about nonsense, about trivial matters, because we don’t want to revel in our pettiness.

This may sound like an appealing self-awareness, a deflating of self-importance. In the course of the film, however, Jep comes to realise that in attempting to pre-empt and avoid his own untruths, he has ended up avoiding life. The Great Beauty is not something which comes along but rather the experience itself:

This is how it always ends. With death. But first there was life. Hidden beneath the blah, blah, blah. It is all settled beneath the chitter chatter and the noise. Silence and sentiment. Emotion and fear. The haggard, inconstant flashes of beauty. And then the wretched squalor and miserable humanity. All buried under the cover of the embarrassment of being in the world. Beyond there is what lies beyond. I don’t deal with what lies beyond. Therefore…let this novel begin.

It has been a recurring trope of the film that Jep once wrote a serious novel and has since written interviews. People ask him several times why he doesn’t write again. He is shown revelling at the centre of extravagant, hedonistic parties, surrounded by people who chase the lustre of ostentatious ‘creativity’. We see an unsuccessful actor who suddenly announces she is now a writer, then mid-thought decides that she might direct a film. Jep’s friend spends much of the film chasing a dream of staging his own play, though it seems to be a dream heavily inspired by his pursuit of aforementioned ‘actor’. In the course of his writing Jep encounters a couple of dreadful artists: a self-indulgent performance artist who speaks about herself in the third-person and who waffles about ‘vibrations’, and a young girl who dramatically hurls pots of paint at a canvas. It is all nothing and Jep is no-one, a cipher at the heart of the sound and fury. As we see in the final lines of the quote above, Jep comes to realise this and endeavours to confront life in all its complex beauty and horror, figuratively signalled by his decision to write a novel again.

In the middle of nothing it’s easy to be anything. Everyone in Jep’s life performs for one another, avoiding sincerity and seeking validation for their self-image. Jep’s own journey is set in motion by the death of an old girlfriend, his first love. Having avoided his own past for so long, he finds that the roots of who he has become offer redemption. This is paralleled by his friend who, realising that his play is dreadful and his audience are politely indulging him, dramatically decides to return to his home village after decades away. “Rome has really disappointed me”, he offers as explanation.

It will be obvious to many by now that while Rome is an integral part of the film I saw many parallels with London within it. Only last week I found myself telling an old acquaintance whom I’d bumped into in Glasgow that it was so easy to get lost in London and not even realise it. So easy to surround yourself with people who unthinkingly reflect your self-image back at you and demand that you do the same, allowing you to believe that you are what you want to be. I think this is part of why going back home for Christmas is so difficult for many here – it threatens to puncture the illusion, confronts us with a very real history of ourselves in contrast to the ‘self-made’ people we have become.  We must look at ourselves with some attempt at honesty and humility, not so that we can revel in triviality to avoid the discomforts of sincerity but rather so we can look life squarely in the face and begin to understand what lies beyond its appealing, deceptive surfaces. Only then can we grow, only then can we truly immerse ourselves in what life has to offer.

Heck, it even brings to mind the final words of the 11th Doctor:

We all change. When you think about, it we’re all different people all through our lives and that’s OK. That’s good. Gotta keep it moving, so long as you remember all the people that you used to be.

This is none-too-subtle but at the very least it’s interesting because we really should (must) interrogate what we believe and why we believe it more. And on the whole, we really don’t. There’s no reason to, after all, no external pressure to do so (certainly not in our culture). Our identity and ego so easily get wrapped up in our ‘beliefs’ (I’m left-wing, I’m liberal etc) that any undermining of them quickly causes us to get defensive. Yet I’ve encountered plenty of people who would call themselves ‘socialists’ who believe, for example, that they earn £40,000 a year because of their innate superiority to most other people; or that ‘socialism’ is largely whatever the Labour Party happens to be doing at the time.  Your peer group is hugely important in all of this and a key question regarding beliefs is whether you would hold onto it even when it caused difficulties, even unpopularity, in your immediate circle – a question which I’m sure most of us would instinctively answer yes we would but then you find yourself having an awkward moment in the pub and you think it’s easier to just change the subject. We don’t connect the latter to the former because we think we hold onto the belief inside but that’s when it’s little more than ego masturbation. We extend that to a whole group when we surround ourselves with people who don’t challenge us (and whom we don’t challenge). Rather than being off-limits, conversations about first principle beliefs (extended into ideologies and beyond) should be welcomed. Challenges, arguments and disagreements which don’t become thinly-veiled battles for supremacy should be celebrated. The alternative is intellectual laziness, stagnation and an unearned and unappealing certitude.

Hey some really wise guy once summed this up as ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’ so what do I know?

Liberalism vs. Radicalism

As we see that cultural capital build, we strive to document as much as we can within social media, thus mimicking at the personal, micro-level the macro-level aspirations of Facebook to assimilate all of sociality on its “social graph.” From this totalizing system, we can then derive the comfort that everything will be recorded and be factored in — we don’t need to decide in advance what is significant, what to consume or not consume. With social media as a personal content-management system, we get to consume more than ever, free of the supposed guilt that comes from consuming the wrong stuff or showing off.

How we use and relate to social media is a big theme in my writing and ever since I found the Marginal Utility blog, much of it has been sparked by Rob Horning’s work. I’ve come to hate it when people describe something as ‘must read’ but Horning seems pretty essential to me – at least for anyone who regularly uses social media, which is obviously almost anyone reading this. This latest piece shares some provocative and profound thoughts on the nature of identity and the ‘authentic self’, positing that we increasingly find and believe in who we are by what we share (and interact with) on social media. As Horning puts it, ‘self-discovery’ is now ‘reputation management’. 

Social media becomes an ever more dominant part of our lives and yet so few people seem to seriously contemplate it and how they use it. We see this not only in rampant and rewarded narcissism (as Horning says in the quote above, on social media we can show off and it’s okay) but in instances like the Paris Brown affair. The “totalizing system” is such that I found myself asking a friend last week “if it’s not on Facebook, did it actually happen?” It goes beyond merely sharing photos of our nights out, checking in at a gig or posting our thoughts on the latest episode of ‘Mad Men’ into experiences actually becoming subservient to their expression on social media. They become means by which we can further express our personalities online (and so find them both reflected back at us and affirmed). Not only does it seem that the offline space to develop becomes ever smaller but the desire to do this recedes. It’s Warren Beatty’s infamous quote about Madonna stolen from the realm of the super-celebrity and applied to every mundane moment of life:

She doesn’t want to live off-camera, much less talk. There’s nothing to say off-camera. Why would you say something if it’s off-camera? What point is there existing? 

For ‘camera’ read (obviously) ‘social media’ – what is the point of doing anything if it can’t be shared online, can’t be used to further our perception of ourselves? More than that, if others don’t see it, don’t comment on it, don’t ‘like’ or RT it, what was its purpose? This was rammed home to me yesterday as we visited a friend at a gallery and I was astounded at the ubiquity of people taking photos of the artwork with their phones – it was happening everywhere, constantly. Contemplation of the art was replaced by broadcasting the fact that you are contemplating art.

Horning posits this tension as being between the consumerist sense of authenticity and a post-social media ‘data’ sense, ending by envisaging a time of “postauthenticity, in which the momentum of sharing itself is all that needs to be shared, and identity becomes noninterpretable.” I’m not so sure – to me it seems that social media is a continuation of the consumerist idea of identity (albeit one which is subsuming the latter) and people will remain wedded to the idea of the ‘self’. Indeed, you need only look at the amount of pictures which people share of the latest things they have bought or how frequently we post about what we ‘consume’ as if it says something about us to see that the two ideas of identity are finding a happy co-existence online. Perhaps the fundamental difference is that the former did allow for ‘privacy’, something which is becoming an irrelevance (and an impossibility). The implications which this has for us are enormous and troubling, to say the least.

Google Alert for the Soul

I LOVE ME

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When did narcissism actually become a thing? Obviously self-love has always been with us but in polite circles it was considered crass, arrogant and embarrassing. Now it seems widely encouraged and rewarded. If you’re an attractive person, posting endless photos of yourself on your social media account seems certain to garner a large following; writing pithy statements about how ‘amazing’ you are is greeted with glee. People find endless ways to let everyone else know that they’re doing something REALLY GREAT. Even setting up your own ‘fan’ page for your blog or filtered photography is seen as a-ok.

Social media is an area which inspires much comment but is still relatively new in the field of academia. The smattering of research out there, however, suggests that people are indeed becoming more narcissistic and less able to empathise with others. The use of social media not only as validation for the self but as an actual driver for it is something I’ve been thinking about for quite a while and it only seems to be getting worse. It now seems beyond the pale for anyone to be critical of people’s sickly conceitedness – as the poster child for this sings, “there’s nothing wrong with loving who you are”. ‘Born This Way’ is not  an urge towards self-reflection, a recognition that you have worth and responsibility. Instead it suggests that who you are right now is who you are meant to be and that is ‘perfect’. It both encourages and perfectly reflects the view that any criticism of yourself or your endeavours is both hateful and not worth paying attention to. But in reality, we’re not perfect – not at all. We all have massive and unattractive flaws; many of the most narcissistic people seem aware of that deep down and use social media to obscure the aspects they don’t like, remaking themselves through the digital eyes of others.

The first article on research linked to above notes that:

Narcissists had an inflated sense of self, lacked empathy, were vain and materialistic and had an overblown sense of entitlement. 

Sound familiar? A cursory glance at your social media will probably inspire recognition of those words. More than that, it seems to be spreading ever more widely in our society and is at the root of so much. The entire, awful genre of reality television relies on it. Our modern obsession with VERY LOUDLY BEING ATHEIST is a perfect illustration of it, as is the fetishisation of ‘creativity’. This latter trend does not dwell on the transformative power of art, its ability to offer new perspectives on not only the wider world but also ourselves. No, it instead fixates on a facile, ostentatious ‘creativity’ which demands praise and validation, usually for minimal effort. We have to be seen to be photographers, writers, actors, whatever. A large part of this is the sense of entitlement mentioned above – no-one wants to think that they are ‘average’. Combine this with the lack of any sense of wider responsibility and you end up with the pervasive notion that work seen as ordinary and mundane is not worth bothering with – certainly not worth vesting any sense of your identity in. I may work in an office but I am a big deal on Instagram! To question and/or criticise this is to be negative, bitter, cynical – we must not challenge the ‘dreams of a life’ which we have constructed for ourselves. Entire social circles are founded upon this simple truth and the willingness of everyone concerned to act as a blank mirror for each other. Indeed, the song currently at number one presents this vision of a deep and pure love:

It’s like you’re my mirror
My mirror staring back at me
I couldn’t get any bigger
With anyone else beside of me

An anthem for our times! Love is not to be found in someone radically different from yourself, someone who may cause you to question aspects of your personality and even inspire an urge to change! No, love is validation and validation is love.

Listening to Morrissey’s You Are The Quarry yesterday the following lyrics jumped out at me:

Why did you stick me in 
Self-deprecating bones and skin
Do you hate me? do you hate me? 
Do you hate me? do you hate me? 
Do you hate me?

I think it’s a sentiment which anyone who has felt held back by a lack of confidence can identify with, particularly when it seems that arrogant certitude is the way to get ahead. Yet elsewhere on the album we find Morrissey singing “even I, sick and depraved, a traveller to the grave, I would never be you” to a figure of authority and of certainty. This surely is a nod to the ultimately redeeming power of a humility and modesty which can seem crippling? In this recognition of our worse aspects, this sense that we are so imperfect in so many ways, we are almost forced into an empathy and awareness which prevents us from an arrogant, preening self-love. We can always be and do better. Indeed, we must. It is in this state that we find the urge towards the transformative, engaged creativity which is not about validating our sense of self but actively seeking discomfort: as the great Paul Robeson famously noted:

The artist must elect to fight for freedom or slavery. I have made my choice.

Does that sound too narcissistic, too much like a sense of superiority over others? To borrow another quote, humility is ‘thinking of yourself less’ – we fundamentally know if we are doing things for the approval of others if we take a moment to think about it. We ‘begin by being’ rather than appearing to be.