Arts & Entertainments is among other things very good, very New York, a comedy complement to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl (mid book: “I don’t like living this way. I’ve barely been outside in a week. I want to come home”), a defense of privacy and explanation of its importance (see also “Solitude and Leadership“), a surprise critique of the NSA, a reminder to trust liars, and a reminder that attention is the scarcest commodity of all and becoming scarcer.
I want to write that the plot is absurd. But is it? The vast celebrity-industrial complex is so large and amorphous that it is difficult to judge the plausibility of the plot, or of Eddie’s fatal sex-tape miscalculation. Does he not read the news? Every week some teacher or other gets fired not for being a stripper but for becoming known as one. Digital life is rife with such stories. People as a whole (and the culture we create) are hypocritical, as the novel is aware; though this is taken out of context it reinforces the point:
People don’t want to go overboard with the sad stuff. Mostly, they want to be able to judge people, and they can’t judge a girl in a coma. If she was older and had some kids, they could judge her for being selfish and irresponsible. But she’s too young for that. Maybe they can judge her father for a little while, but that’s his daughter in the coma, so that will only last so long. They can judge, like, the culture at large, but that means judging themselves, so that gets tiresome too. And there’s another episode of Desperately Expecting Susan to watch on Tuesday. Everyone will want an excuse to return their attention to the usual entertainment. We give them a nice opportunity.
The judgment reflex and public morality lag behind reality and rarely moreso than in putative education. The joy of altruistic punishment is real and rarely more powerful than in sexual mattes, with financial matters probably coming in second.
Arts & Entertainments picks up a millennia-old conversation about the self and how much, if at all, we can really know another person. In “In its second season premiere, Masters of Sex takes on the hardest questions of love,” Todd VanDerWerff writes:
One reason so many have tried to repress their sexual desires or legislate them away throughout human history is because when it comes to sex, we’re reduced to our most basic selves. There’s a moment where we are uncontrolled, and our true face appears, even if only for a second. To “fix” this, we try to introduce a rigidity, a script to stick to. We try to set up carefully delineated divisions between that true self and the version of ourselves we present to the world. Yet the fear is always there that in a moment of weakness, that face will appear, and we’ll finally be seen for who we truly are, even if no one would blink for a second.
This may be one reason people like porn, especially of celebrities or other people they know: they imagine that they are getting a moment of the “true” self, and that one gets to see through the personality. But Masters of Sex undercuts that: think of the scene in which Masters is told by Jane Martin, a prostitute in the show, that virtually all women can fake it and have faked it. Masters is astonished, and his astonishment comes from a massive revision about human nature. Most people, I suspect, go through such revisions over and over again, their views on nature changing until they come to a realization like this paraphrase of Terence, by way of Montaigne: “Nothing human is foreign to me.”
Art is filled with moments that remind us of the liars we are. Can we accept an answer of “no,” we do not know and cannot really know another person? Take a moment at the end of Generation War, a fantastic German miniseries that follows five German friends through World War II, in which a Jewish survivor returns to Germany after the war only to discover that a highly-placed Nazi shifted allegiances after the war and continued to be part of the German government. The Nazi’s allegiance was to power itself, and the implication is that we don’t know what a person will do when the circumstances in which they live change.
That we may not be able to know another is not a new idea, but the jones for “reality” TV and celebrity gossip fuels it. There is also an old idea that only God can see our true selves, but the true self may be an outgrown idea, like that other somewhat outgrown idea. In “Scientists discover that atheists might not exist, and that’s not a joke,” Nury Vittachi writes that “a metaphysical outlook may be so deeply ingrained in human thought processes that it cannot be expunged.” I’m unconvinced but I do think most if not all people need an attachment to an idea greater than and outside themselves. Celebrity, Arts & Entertainments suggests, could be that idea, but it is ultimately a hollow one. The cameras lie as effectively as we lie to each other and ourselves. Eddie’s weakness as an actor and a character is his inability to lie effectively. Poor deception skills make him ironically unable to exist on reality TV. The book is filled with subtle ironies like this, and that’s one reason why I think it catches the attention of critics who might be otherwise inclined to write it off as basic, lightweight satire. It isn’t just that. It’s a book of pleasures and of depth.
People who truly live and die an ideology or belief are the real exceptions. Standing for something is the uncommon thing, which may be why it’s so valorized in proportion to the number of people who actually do it. It may also be one of the many reasons religion keeps sneaking into this book. Eddie went to a Catholic school at which he teaches, and he appears to want on some level to do the time without doing the crime, so to speak, but this comment will appear inscrutable without having read the book, but I don’t want to give it more context for fear of spoiling the surprisingly twisty plot. Nothing feels like it’s happening as everything does.
One character, a reality TV producer named Moody, describes how he spent time in “a retreat house in Minnesota, run by the Order of St. Clement” while studying to become a priest; but he left after contact with a film crew that had arrived to make a video that showed what happened. As he says
The crew had their own problems. The things that were really going on in that place couldn’t be captured on film, because they were meant for God, not for the audience. They happened inside people. I watched all this, and somehow I knew what the audience would want to see.
If what you’re doing, or thinking, or feeling can’t be seen, does it matter? Does it “exist?” Is the audience God? Moody also highlights a challenge in any sort of narrative fiction, which can’t effectively depict what happens during the having of an idea, or when someone is doing an intellectual activity. Intellectual effort is mostly invisible, though it may be represented by books or typing or the like. Biographies of many artists are boring because the artists don’t necessarily do that much with their lives. Unless they’re unusually social or unusually sexual, they draw, they pain, they write—none of which lend themselves to narrative. One can write about influences and encounters and so on, but many people have interesting influences and encounters but never go on to do important work, as the artist does.
Movies have an especially hard time with boring writers and thinkers. The Social Network needs a lot of tarted-up, amped up drama to make it compelling; in real life Mark Zuckerberg appears to have spent most of his life at a keyboard and to have been in a monogamous relationship since he was 19 or 20. A Beautiful Mind also dramatizes the discovery moments in math, but the bulk of the movie focuses on dramatizing schizophrenia instead. Novels have similar problems. Few works of narrative art have plots that are motivated by ideas or intellectual curiosity—instead they focus on the interwoven meanings of sex, money, social status, and death. All are fine topics but one wonders if there is more out there.
TV and film, even more than the novel, are about dramatizing the exterior. Anything inside that can’t be represented outside doesn’t exist, but it’s so often what’s inside that counts most. If the soul does not live outside the body, it must not exist at all. The camera reminds us that we do exist, and we live for the adulation of others. That is so hard to resist that we barely know the people who do resist it; for one thing, they aren’t on TV, are rarely in any media, and as such they are the dark matter of contemporary society, everywhere and nowhere simultaneously. Yet they may be the real-ist people of all. If there once was such a thing as natural existence, TV has taken that away, and those who actively cultivate the TV-social-media-Internet-gossip mindset may not have it all. They are faux people, pod people, and that scares because they cannot be relied on to produce a consistent set of behaviors over time, which we usually call personality. One purpose of religion is to enforce a set of behavior codes that allow reasonable forward planning and projection. Arts & Entertainments encourages us to think that maybe there are parts of religion that we think more seriously about, and that fame as a secular religion has its perils that are often not seen until after it has been achieved.