Monday, May 27, 2013

Guest Post: Class-based Aesthetics As Moral Lodestars: Reflections On Meghan Daum's Misspent Youth

This guest post is by my former co-blogger at Commonwealth and Commonwealth, Captain Colossal

In 2001 Meghan Daum wrote this book of essays:  My Misspent Youth which was re-released this year with a new forwardThe first essay is about how Daum can’t afford to live in New York as a writer anymore and is moving to Lincoln, Nebraska and I read it when it was published in the New Yorker and I remember thinking, But you’re published in the New Yorker meaning you have achieved the pinnacle of everything.  And I envied her then because she had this essay in the New Yorker, but also because she had put so well into words a feeling that I had at the time, which was that my dream of life was not one I would be able to afford either financially or spiritually.  And re-reading it now, I still envy her, because she’s cool.

They’re great, these essays, and it’s cool that they’re written by a woman, because I feel like I read, and love, so many essays of this sort by men and it can get me a little testy, even while I’m reading and loving a particular essay by a particular man, this sense that men get to do reflection and confession and summing up to the extent that the reflection and confession and summing up remains unapologetic and High Art, while women only get to do it if they Learn Things along the way.

And then I stumble a little bit on Daum’s dismissiveness, an overabundance of cool, perhaps, about certain kinds of people.  There’s this essay about a polyamorous and sci-fi centric clan, the Ravenhearts, in Northern California, where I stumble the hardest. (Note:  the only thing that gives away the age of the essay is not Daum’s attitude towards polyamory itself, which is very laissez-faire, but the fact that she fails to identify the reference on the t-shirt of one of the clan, which reads, Winter Is Coming.  So right.  Daum is fine with the polyamory, but she’s a little less fine with the sci-fi-ness of the Ravenhearts.  She starts with a reminiscence from her college days in which she stands by idly as someone pours a beer onto the velvet cape of a jouster and feels no guilt.  And the essay never says whether or not this is something that she feels guilt about now.

She doesn’t go for the Ravenhearts, and not because of their complicated or unusual sex lives, but because of their tackiness in a particular kind of sci-fi way -- t-shirts with slogans and long hair and dumb books.  It’s an aesthetic judgment that she can’t really get past.  Which is one of the themes of the book -- after all, there’s an essay about how wall-to-wall carpet is something that Daum can’t live with, not because of practical concerns, but because:  "Carpet is otherness.  It is not my house and not the house of ninety percent of the people I know.  It’s more than just not my style, it’s not my oeuvre."  This is a position I am totally sympathetic to -- there are certain brands I refuse to buy things from not because their product is ugly or made via a particularly grotesque form of sweatshop labor but because to buy from them would taint my conception of myself.  I am embarrassed about it.  But really, also, I still feel it.

I was thinking about Daum and then I was in the gym, actually in the locker room, thinking about how I looked and being dissatisfied with it, and dissatisfied with it in some way that, again, leapt from an aesthetic judgment about myself to a moral judgment about myself, because, like Daum, in some ways aesthetics, and not Picasso aesthetics or even LeCorbusier’s aesthetics, but commercial, class-based aesthetics, have become my moral lodestars.

Which brings me back to the world’s greatest essay, Lionel Trilling on Mansfield Park, which discusses "the Terror which rules our moral situation, the ubiquitous anonymous judgment to which we respond, the necessity we feel to demonstrate the purity of our secular spirituality, whose dark and dubious places are more numerous and obscure than those of religious spirituality, to put our lives and styles to the question, making sure that not only in deeds but in décor they exhibit the signs of our belonging to the number of the secular-spiritual elect."

I judge so anxiously my own aesthetics and then I turn that judgment even more harshly on those around me, without noticing.  And this is no good.  Because when dragged out into the light I believe we all deserve mercy.  We deserve kindness.  We deserve not to subject each other to the loofah of our highly refined aesthetic sensibilities, which are all different, but all pitched at so high a grade of distinction that two perfectly identical t-shirts can convey entirely different things depending on who is wearing them, which is why Don Quixote is different if written by Pierre Menard.

And then I try to imagine what Gore Vidal would have made of the Ravenhearts and whether Gore Vidal’s almost certain snideness towards them would have had a different effect on me than Daum’s response, and then I think about what I have internalized about women and kindness and that’s another thought for another day.

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