Friday, February 13, 2009

Jacob Wren reads Carl Wilson by way of a digression

Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey To The End Of Taste by Carl Wilson
by Jacob Wren
Far more than most celebrities, [Céline] is plausible as a common person catapulted into uncommon status. Apart from her music, I've grown accustomed to her over-expressive face, attached to her arm-flinging gawkiness. And as I suspected, looking closely at her seemingly mundane music has focused me on another set of virtues - not so much the fidelity and devotion she sings about, but the persistence and flexibility it takes to translate between her terms and mine.

This is what I mean by democracy - not a limp open-mindedness, but actively grappling with people and things not like me, which brings with it the perilous question of what I am like. Democracy, that dangerous, paradoxical and mostly unattempted ideal, sees that the self is insufficient, dependent for definition on otherness, and chooses not only to accept that but to celebrate it, to stake everything on it. Through democracy, which demands we meet strangers as equals, we perhaps become less strangers to ourselves.
Many books claim to be experiments, but Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey To The End of Taste does so in terms that are unfamiliar, asking: what does it mean for a rock critic to fully immerse himself in the music of an artist (Céline Dion) that he hates, not as an exercise in self-abnegation but rather as an attempt to come to some more general understanding of why, on a personal and aesthetic level, we love the things we love and hate the things that, in the case of Céline, ‘tens of millions’ of others all around the world happen to love. In this experiment Wilson is nothing if not thorough, but what struck me most upon re-reading the book (in order to write this text) was how deeply moving I often found it. Hurtling past the very astute Bourdieu take on taste as cultural capital, cutting deeply into how our aesthetic loves, the ones that most define us, in fact also serve to define us in relation to those we wish to raise ourselves above in social status, Wilson drives into the oversized emotions that Céline so effortlessly and graciously flaunts and suggests that our embarrassment around such things is not only a rejection of “schmaltz”, the only category he can find to describe her genre, but also representative of a questionable, very contemporary embarrassment around (and repression of) feeling things too much.

If I knew what was good for me I would probably continue along these lines (while at the same time toning it down a bit.) I believe Let’s Talk About Love is an important book and that everyone should simply go out and read it now. However, I had another, slightly more personal, encounter with this book and, since Wilson uses autobiographical detail sparingly but to great effect in Let’s Talk About Love, I will take the permission to do the same. My anecdote is perhaps self-indulgent, I suppose embarrassing, perhaps self-serving (I apologize most for the self-serving aspect), but (I hope) it does eventually come to a point.

About six months ago, my own most recent book had received no reviews. Sheila Heti, who was once married to Carl Wilson and appears in Let’s Talk About Love, though not mentioned by name, volunteered to review my book and proposed it to The Globe & Mail, who quickly refused, saying (and I hope my martyr complex didn’t simply make this next part up), that it would be of ‘no interest to their readership.’ I found this depressing. I greatly admire Shelia’s writing and would have been very curious to see what she would have written. (Knowing Sheila’s tastes a bit I did not think it would be entirely positive but hoped I could take it.) And of course it never hurts to have one’s book reviewed in The Globe & Mail.

A few months later I got a Facebook message from another friend/acquaintance whose work I also greatly admire, and to whom I had recently sent a copy of my book: Emily Vey Duke. Her Facebook message read: “I love your book.” This of course felt very good (such moments of surprising approbation are rare in this life) and, increasingly regretful that my book had been out almost a year and had yet to receive a single review, I decided to take matters into my own hands, asking Emily if she would be willing to write something about my book and attempt to place it in an art magazine. She agreed and a few months later she nervously sent me a first draft. Her review was strongly positive but – and I believe I took it graciously at the time – not nearly as positive as I had hoped. There were two quite damming paragraphs, the second of which read:
My biggest frustration with the piece was the decision to include the final chapter, “There is a Special place in Hell Reserved for People who Listen to the Wrong Kind of Music”. After three lachrymose, acerbic, haunted and important chapters, Wren tosses in a bit about how it's alienating when people younger than one's self start to listen to the music one held dear—how that can leave one feeling over-the-hill, not with-it. This is a reductive description, and I would be the last person to claim that the culture of cool, of with-it-ness, is less than tyrannical, but Wren's work here does not stand up […] Certainly the relationship between taste and identity is worth exploring—Carl Wilson has done so brilliantly in his fabulous little book “Let's Talk About Love” (to which I thank Jon Davies for introducing me). Unfortunately, Wren's exploration of the same ideas feels tacked on and trivializes what has come before.
And the moment I read this I knew she was absolutely right. What I had meekly tried (and I now believe failed) to do in the last section of my book, Wilson accomplished with thoroughness and panache in Let’s Talk About Love. I even remember thinking this (briefly) the first time I read it: this is what I had been trying to do, and seeing it done properly made it apparent how far off the mark I had in fact been. Besides the bizarre, if slight, coincidence that the first two attempts to review my book had a (very, very) tangential connection to Wilson (the arts community in Canada is small but is it really that small), there was the reality that I had attempted, Adorno in hand, to write about music, taste and politics and yet, it wasn’t until reading Wilson’s book that I realized how shallowly I had scratched the surface, and in many way how outdated many of my thoughts and positions around the topic had become. I wondered, and wondered quite seriously, if I had read Let’s Talk About Love before my own book went to press if I would have had the good sense to cut the last section (I hope so.)

So, and I am not exactly sure why this aspect might be relevant to anyone else, in my great admiration for this small, potent book there is also a certain degree of regret. It is my hope that in this regret, in my rather sharp realization that themes and topics can be shared among many different writers to varying degrees of efficacy, there is also something we might refer to as democratic.

Jacob Wren is a writer and maker of eccentric performances. His recent books include Unrehearsed Beauty (Coach House Books), Families Are Formed Through Copulation (Pedlar Press), Le génie des autres (Le Quartanier), La famille se crée en copulant (Le Quartanier) and the upcoming novel Revenge Fantasies of the Politically Dispossessed. As co-artistic director of Montreal-based interdisciplinary group PME-ART he has co-created En francais comme en anglais, it's easy to criticize (1998), Unrehearsed Beauty / Le Génie des autres (2002), La famille se crée en copulant (2005) and Hospitality (2008). He has also collaborated with Nadia Ross and her company STO Union. Together they have co-written and co-directed Recent Experiences (2000) and Revolutions in Therapy (2004). In 2007 he was invited to Berlin by Sophiensaele to adapt and direct Wolfgang Koeppen's 1954 novel Der Tod in Rom and in 2008 he was commissioned by Campo in Ghent to co-create (with Pieter De Buysser) a new performance entitled An Anthology of Optimism. He frequently writes about contemporary art for C Magazine.


1 comment:

vintin said...

Jacob -

As an aside to the general intent of your piece (which is a fine piece btw), I hate the Globe & Mail. Ever since the NAZIonal Post came on the scene, the G&M and every other mainstream press stampeded rightward - I found it became completely unreadable quite a long time ago. So I don't read it, unless I find it in a café or in a recycling box or something. I'm not saying this just to complain (although complaint is good), but to point out that the cost of such a right wing emphasis is the extinguishing or at least the driving underground of thoughtful discourse on cultural artifacts such as your book. The 'mainstream' is no longer the mainstream if it 'disincludes' more than it includes. (Speaking of democracy!)