Bread and Circuses
"Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man, the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time handed out military command, high civil office, legions -- everything, now restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses." -- Juvenal, Roman Satirist
Every time I return to my Michigan hometown, I am reminded of the ridiculous. Not The Ridiculous, that which Dali claimed that this world needs more of, but moreso: the ridiculous that Australian comedy shows make manifest, the sad sick reality of suburban America; that of which I am both product and reaction.
I visit my divorcee grandmother in her AARP-certified condo, complete with electric fireplace (real heat!) and laser-lighted personal sauna. Impeccably decorated. Her endearing Southern hospitality is unfortunately paired, as it often is, with the perverted fervor of Baptist assurance. I used to see it as self-assurance, then realized that self-assurance is more or less mutually exclusive with organized religion. Uncertain of one's own destiny, one must place it in the hands of a divine being via the hands of a middleman. Personal responsibility of ultimate ends is eliminated, and personal responsibility of means is simplified by ritual. Go to church every Sunday. Jesus is watching! Look busy! Self-assurance is made impossible when the notion of God as existing within oneself is denied.
She sings hymns to herself for hours each day out of fear that, living alone, her voice will die from lack of use. She paints in a basement that has no windows and never removes her finished products, locking them behind a door to which only she holds a key. The nausea of loneliness keeps her from being able to fall asleep alone in her own bed, propelling her to an easy chair; she skims digests until her eyes tear & wearily close from the strain of reading in the dimly lit wee hours of the morning.
I see rampant suburban development, and it's sinisterly agreeable, as most beige things are; like the lifeless office lackey it seeks to please, yet knows little of real aesthetic pleasure. In modern architecture, as in politics and other forms of marketing, one must appeal to the lowest common denominator. Urban ugliness is real. Overfertilized manicured pedicured lawns multiplied on boulevards are not.
Holden Caulfield is an idiot. If he thought New York was full of "fucking phonies" then clearly he'd never been to the Midwest. New Yorkers may be blunt, but at least their dialogue, if harsh, is directed towards some sort of end. Birds don't warble for shits and giggles. Bees don't fly in futile circles; every movement is carefully planned and intended to relay the distance and direction of pollen to other bees. I'm not an advocate for strict social utilitarianism, but the very least that Midwesterners -- as a subspecies of the oh-so-illustrious homo sapiens -- could do is follow suit in conversational habits. Language exists so that we may communicate our thoughts and ideas to one another. Small talk is thus an abberation of evolution; it is language that lacks content or intent (save the prevalent yet benign devotion to a warped form of politeness), in short -- purposeless. The old sixes and sevens. It is akin to the numbing phenomenon of repeating the word "fork" until it becomes a sound devoid of any recognizable meaning; excess blinds any significant perceptions.
My parents, though supportive of my ambitions (if not my lifestyle), dread my inadvertant jabs at their padded silver platter; they fear me as Springfield fears Lisa Simpson. My father insists that my dissatisfaction with consumerist and materialist lifestyles renders me an inescapably unhappy person, doomed to a life of politically-correct misery; he stoically contends that true happiness is attained by accepting the status quo at face value and milking the system for all it can give you. Make the most of what you've got. If you can't beat 'em, join em. When in Rome, divide and conquer.
I, however, take the Aristotelian view that happiness is a subjective function, an inward power of the soul, and when I turn myself inside out I find I gain immense pleasure by abstaining from the litany of excess and violence of mainstream American culture. But merely complaining about the current state of affairs doesn't bring me joy; everyone knows that all that bitching and moaning can earn is a private performance from the world's smallest violinist. But critically assessing the world, envisioning a new one, and taking action to take those desires for reality -- that is what inspires me. It is what compels me to smile at unfriendly strangers on the subway and make art out of things I find in the dumpster. To each his own, I say, and let them eat cake. But I shalt not suckle from The Man's bloated teats of unqualified authority, no matter how good it tastes when you're hungry. One cannot subsist on bread and circuses alone.
Aldous Huxley writes in Brave New World Revisited that "any bird that has learned how to grub up a good living without being compelled to use its wings will soon renounce the privilege of flight and remain forever grounded. If the bread is supplied regularly and copiously three times a day, many of them will be perfectly content to live by bread alone -- or at least by bread and circuses alone. "In the end," says the Grand Inquisitor in Dostoevsky's parable, "in the end they will lay their freedom at your feet and say to us, 'make us your slaves, but feed us.'" Bread is not the opiate of the masses, it is the cyanide. I believe in everything; nothing is sacred. I believe in nothing; everything is sacred. And if opium was the religion of the masses, what a circus it would be.
Yet Huxley remains bemusedly optimistic, as do I. He continues, "When things go badly, and the rations are reduced, the grounded do-dos will clamor again for their wings... The young people who now think so poorly of democracy may grow up to be fighters for freedom. The cry of 'Give me television and hamburgers, but don't bother me with the responsibilites of liberty,' may give place, under altered circumstances to the cry of 'Give me liberty or give me death." Kick them while they're down, sideshow-style. Loafers will be replaced by clown shoes when the freaks have nothing to lose but their chains.
I seem to slip into an alternate persona when I come back to Grand Rapids, returning to the role I filled in high school: the Alpha female, the instigator, the something in the air. It's not that my personality changes drastically according to my location -- I am myself, always -- but it's more that my doppelganger was and is necessitated by the situations I find myself in here, with the fierce face-painted posse I used to command that is now floundering under a lack of direction. Even in my most vulnerable moments they see me as a leader, and I evoke their cries for help; while explaining my neuroses over maintaining and cultivating my being seperate from my relationships with others (a weak point, albeit one that is fortunately fading further into the past) an old friend interrupts.
"Please... write me a how-to manual," she speaks softly, with pleading eyes. "I spend all my time with my boyfriend, but he doesn't spend all his time with me. I can't go to the bar yet. I need something to do while he's at the bar."
Get a hobby, I say. Or a job. Learn an instrument. Read all of these books, I'll write them all down for you. Go on adventures and take pictures of them. Make a blog. Use self-documentation to remind yourself of who you are, and decide if it's who you want to be. Besides, you're never more fabulous then when you're before a camera, at the keyboard, creating your own myths.
I glance at my friend, who is staring at the Tecate mirror behind the Jose Cuervo cactus on the other side of the room. Personifying liquor is marketable, I hear. She nods halfheartedly and I wonder if she even heard me.
The rift between my past and present lives is becoming a canyon; tweaked-out tectonic plates trying to meet each other on the opposite side of the earth. I am reminded of Sebastian, who once said in broken English: "If only I had me no ears, for then I could smile in a circle."
Now I want to create, and I want to create something meaningful. I'm finding myself fiending, but for what? Should it matter, as long as I have this impulse at all? Would defining my objectives too specifically mute my inspiration? And so many people here, there, everywhere, don't seem to fiend at all. They don't even deserve the title of zombies; they have no appetite for brainz. The uninspired have conspired, the few inspired have expired. They are passive consumers of hyperactive media. No grip on the reins but still stuck in the saddle, hurtling onwards at breakneck speed...
Better a starving artist than a fat cat in a top hat. Bread and Circuses, bread and circuses.
Image by n@n@figue, courtesy of Creative Commons license.Tweet