ToddSeavey.com Book Selection: Are You Serious? How to Be True and Get Real in the Age of Silly by Lee Siegel
•John Zmirak, co-founder of American Conservative magazine, made a surprise appearance at this week’s final Manhattans Project gathering (the events soon to be replaced by bigger and better events I’ll host in Williamsburg). He co-wrote a book called The Bad Catholic’s Guide to Good Living, and we discussed the complex question of discerning those who are joking when they call themselves “bad” from those who aren’t (and which is worse).
•Oddly enough, the very next day I chatted with Pagan Kennedy, author of (among other things) Pagan Kennedy’s Living: The Handbook for Maturing Hipsters, which gives very different advice from a very different philosophical perspective – framed ironically, though Pagan is an admirably serious person.
•And a tiny, tiny handful of you may already be aware that if you combine those two people (and books), you basically get Rod Dreher’s Crunchy Cons, which I think makes an admirable stab at wrestling with some serious issues but is ultimately silly (not unlike the Pope, with whom Dreher was briefly aligned, trotting out two millennia of tradition and philosophy to defend anti-globalization sentiments or anti-global-warming regulations).
•Shortly after seeing Pagan, I saw a panel of writers assembled by Commentary (including my friend Abe Greenwald) analyzing the highly serious subject of the War on Terror – yet I’m not positive there was more truth in their panel than in the ostensibly-sillier books mentioned above (not even Dreher’s). I’m pleased to see them doing public events, though (the more the merrier).
Where does silly end and serious begin?
•Is it more important when a New York Times business reporter like Gretchen Morgenson lauds criticism of the Federal Reserve akin to Ron Paul’s or when The Daily Show does a comedy bit that implies Ron Paul should be taken more seriously?
•Is it wrong to admit that this two-minute Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan opera is beautiful? Or is it wrong – even dangerous – to pretend that it is not?
I lean strongly toward the latter attitude, as you may have noticed, but I cannot be sure.
Lee Siegel has written a book on the serious question of seriousness, and it is odd, more a meandering essay – with a fairly abstract point – than an examination or explanation in the usual sense. Siegel is concerned – as are many of us – about how to differentiate between that which is truly serious, deep, and important in contemporary culture (if anything) and that which merely has the markers of “seriousness” without having real depth and importance.
He contrasts the purported seriousness of politicians, pundits, experts, and hip novelists with the everyday seriousness of coping with major life decisions (marriage, fending off burglars, facing death) and wonders how it is we know when we’re being truly serious. Perhaps most important, he notes that humor can itself be serious or frivolous, depending on whether it underscores truths, and purported-seriousness can be exposed as frivolous in some cases precisely by its humorlessness. That complicates things.
Since I think religion, “spirituality” in general, Continental-style philosophy, sports, most sad songs, fashion, a great deal of art, government in any form, environmentalism, most of what passes for conventional health wisdom, many modern dating conventions, feel-good self-helpy pop-psychology, and much of academia and journalism are ridiculous (even offensively so), I certainly have a vested interest in determining more-accurate indicators of real seriousness – and, of course, explaining how I became their arbiter after a lifetime of dedication to skepticism and logic, rooted in uncommon emotional stability and dedication to intellectual integrity, bolstered by a genius-level IQ.
Anyway, in the meantime, here’s some wacky stuffon the Internet that challenges our ability to tell serious from non-serious:
•Kyle Smith is correct that Rise of the Planet of the Apes was only so-so, but I find myself headed to see it a second time tonight mainly because I told a vegan friend we’d see it together. I am curious to see the reaction of someone who is rooting for the apes more fully than I can (though I concede, as a good student of philosophy, that they count as people once their IQs are sufficiently boosted in this tale). And I can’t decide quite how to react to the little jolt of inspiration some vegans and animal-welfare folk get from stories like this one that seem to suggest COWS WILL RISE.
•I do not condone initiating violence, but you have to admit it’s sort of funny that Obama-philic (and before that Andre the Giant-ophilic, as former Providence residents know) artist Shepard Fairey was mildly beaten up by Danish left-anarchists who told him “Go home, Yankee hipster.” It at least politically complicates the world in a potentially educational way.
•Chuck Blake notes the tendency for Rush songs to contain Tolkien-like moments of reflection before beginning a return journey from someplace like a mystical mountaintop. (Note, by the way, that the two-part 2012/2013 movie of The Hobbit will be called The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and The Hobbit: There and Back Again.)
Of course, the prog rock people were notorious Tolkien fans (as were the hippies, largely due to the agrarianism, most likely, Tory as that impulse was once considered, and will be again if Rod Dreher ever takes over the culture). Pivotal in pushing them toward Tolkien was Led Zeppelin, who – interestingly – were essentially using Tolkien as an amped-up, badass replacement for all the legit-medieval references in the earlier wave of folk music that influenced Zep (and, for instance, Jethro Tull – flutes sounds, kings, courtiers, etc.). Does that make Zep less serious than the preceding faux-medieval folk folk? Does that make the prog rockers even less so?
(The many Tolkien-referencing Zep songs, obviously, include “Misty Mountain Hop”  and even before that “Ramble On” , which is, plainly, awesome, and includes the none-too-subtle lines “Gollum and the evil one, crept up and slipped away with her” and, yes, begins with the reflective, return-journey-evoking lines “Leaves are falling all around, time I was on my way/ Thanks to you, I’m much obliged for such a pleasant stay/ But now it’s time for me to go, the autumn moon lights my way...”)
Stripped of any mystical feel (or logical coherence), I think you can even hear the mountain/Zep echo nearly two decades later in things like Jane’s Addiction’s “Mountain Song.”
Is it silly to take such things seriously? Some prog rock might be silly, but I don’t think Tolkien is. Tolkien lived through the months-long Battle of the Somme in WWI, losing many old friends, and then wrote mostly during WWII. Many think the former actually had a bigger impact on his aesthetics – as seen especially in the futile and destructive Battle of the Five Armies in The Hobbit, which, as is easily forgotten, takes place entirely after the “villain,” Smaug, is already dead. I wouldn’t even be surprised if Smaug dies in the first film and the second one is the massive battle.
I suppose you could say Hobbit’s more like WWI and Rings is more like WWII, with a clear enemy and purpose.
My favorite line in all of Rings is the very last line of the book, when Sam (now Frodo-less and Bilbo-less and elf-less and Gandalf-less) sums up everything to his wife (and echoes today's theme) by just saying, “Well, I’m back.” That’s a joke so serious I wouldn’t blame people for crying over it. Sure, he’s a hobbit – but then again, remember the Somme even if the preceding hundreds of pages didn’t move you.
It’s interesting, by the way, to hear some of the surprisingly serious- and tough-sounding (at least by, like, D&D standards) folk-rock that influenced Zep, like songs by the hippie-folk band Fairport Convention with famous (and soon deceased) lead singer Sandy Denny (the only female to later contribute vocals to a Zep song, “The Battle of Evermore” – itself another Tolkien-inspired song with the return-journey-evoking opening line “Queen of Light took her bow, and then she turned to go”). Both these 1969 Fairport Convention songs are a bit long but well worth a listen (and based on actual medieval folk tales): “Matty Groves” and “Tam Lin.”
Should we take stories (and songs) like those seriously? Do we lose a great deal if we don’t? Do we lose something if we do? Trade-offs are still unavoidable in areas to which people are loathe to apply economic reasoning – except then they call it “tragedy,” which is very serious. (I hope that knowing that “Matty Groves” and “Tam Lin” are from an album so [faux] medieval that its title is Liege & Lief won’t make you dismiss the songs.)
•Perhaps even recent speed metal band Red Fang’s video for their song “Prehistoric Dog” has something serious to teach us about the battle between dudes and nerds. (But is Genghis Tron’s “Endless Teeth” even better visual art? Are you sure?)
•If Rick Perry is fast becoming the tacitly agreed-upon conservative consensus candidate (I think), should we be more impressed by this very-serious campaign ad for him or by these one-liners he’s uttered? (Or just amused, as a friend of mine is, that the game Mass Effect and a Star Wars logo are briefly visible in the serious ad?)
•And is Patri Friedman’s dream of escaping such electoral questions by building new nations in the ocean finally a serious one now that billionaire Peter Thiel is ponying up money for it? Or will seasteading prove as illusory as a mystical mountaintop, something to be imagined by future prog rockers?