Sunday, November 30, 2014

Caricature of an American Brat

There is a holiday tradition in my family (and many others) that takes place at Christmas time. We all gather around an open hearth to enjoy hot chocolate, laughter with loved ones, and a tirade from anyone over 63 entitled, “The Problem with Your Generation.” This tirade will usually begin with a short anecdote about some atrocity recently witnessed in a public place, such as a young child using an iPhone or a teenaged clerk demonstrating a blatant dislike of his or her minimum wage position, and digress into a complete list of grievances with Today’s Youth. In writing Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Jeff Kinney creates a caricature of the “American Brat” – the type of kid that fuels the speech of my incensed family members, rolling every accusation leveled at today’s youth into the character of middle schooler Greg Heffley.

The premise of Diary of a Wimpy Kid is simple: life through the eyes of an average American kid attempting to navigate the trials and tribulations of adolescence. He is the middle child of a middle-class family with two married parents and two bothersome brothers. His averageness is typified by his self-ranked popularity at school, which he estimates to be “around 52nd or 53rd most popular” (7). Every aspect of Greg’s life is a carefully controlled normal. However, in creating this portrait of an “Every-kid” character, Kinney weaves in several fairly unflattering characteristics.

Greg is greedy, selfish, and lazy. He wants an expensive video game for Christmas and fails to recognize the good that may come from the mix-up that resulted in an underprivileged child getting the game instead. He regularly mocks and is embarrassed by his “best friend,” who he describes to be relatively slow, unpopular, and undeserving of the regular vacations taken by his family. He shirks responsibility and is guilty of bullying as often as he is bullied himself. A “smart kid who doesn’t apply himself” (according to his mother), Greg regularly looks to cut corners to achieve his self-serving goals.

In short, Greg is a personification of the supposed corruptive influences of contemporary American society. Technology has made us lazy, consumerism has made us selfish, and modern media has destroyed our moral compass. Thus, grumpy Baby Boomers and their seniors would likely miss the inherent humor in Greg’s many mishaps, imagining instead a workforce one day filled with former “wimpy kids.” 

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Third Person Perspective

In an interview with Isaac Mizrahi, Maira Kalman says that throughout her life, she has always seen herself “as a third person in space.” At first, I wasn’t quite sure what she meant by this, but the more I watched her speak and reflected upon her book, the more it made sense. While reading The Principles of Uncertainty, I was greatly amused by Kalman’s unique perspective on life, but I couldn’t quite make sense of why she saw the world this way, but after watching that interview, it all came together.
            Kalman brings about a whole new sense of humor that we have not really discussed in class. She is not outwardly or overtly funny in anything she writes or does, but her whimsical sense of the world around her and the odd details she picks out as highly important make her writing/illustrating extremely humorous. While comic writers tend to ask their audience to look at themselves and their world from a third person perspective due to some realization they, themselves have made and are now sharing, Kalman simply shares the world as she sees it, which is already from this perspective.
            Cartoonist, Paul Rudnick, talks about writing comics and humor as a form of finding salvation in sad or hard times and this seems to be what Kalman does whether she is acutely aware of it or not. From her interviews it is pretty clear that she knows that what she does it funny, but it seems at the same time that she does not herself find it so funny as much as she simply sees it as her reality. The ways in which she finds it funny are similar to the ways in which we might in that her way of thinking and her perspective are so different from the norm.
            Kalman is hyper aware of the sadness in the world and the hardships that cover the globe and it seems that her way of looking at things and her attraction towards simple diversions and distractions are her own form of “salvation.” So while we find them funny, she finds them therapeutic and it seems that through her writing/illustrating, especially that in The Principles of Uncertainty, she shows us how this functions and asks us to shift our perspective to do the same.
            While many of the writers we have studied so far have this shift of perspective on their agenda, it has usually been with the goal to correct some wrong or badness in our world. In her work, Kalman is not necessarily calling us to action, but instead just bringing us a new sense of mental healthiness and hope. She knows there is only so much to be done about this world but there must be some way to live and that is what she seeks. This overall acceptance of the world as is brings a refreshing sense of honestly and wonder to her work which makes us laugh but also lifts a burden that many of the other writers have tried to press down upon our shoulders.

            I am not saying that Kalman’s work does not ask for change, because it does; Kalman just asks for a different kind of change. The Principles of Uncertainty are a catalyst for a more personal than societal change which can then resonate and be reflected in our actions toward others, but it starts at the core of the self. Humor does not necessarily have to point out the wrongs, but it can make you see the beauty in the small things in order to cope with the worse parts of life. By looking at ourselves from this third person perspective, we can look at ourselves in our world and see where we stand, what we interact with and how and appreciate existence in itself. 

Uncertain Truth, Certain Art

Maria Kalman's ironic response to nihilism is an existentialist endeavor to craft meaning—through art—out of the supposedly meaningless world around her. In doing so, she recognizes that one can never understand complete truth. Any attempt to find meaning will be marked by uncertainty.

“A quote by Bertrand Russell: 'All the labor of all the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction …' So now, my friends, if that is true and it IS true, what is the point? A complicated question” (Kaiman 175).

And a complicated author. How are we to interpret Kalman? Is she an absurdist who enjoys presenting disparate portraits, events, objects, and facts in order to convince us of the meaninglessness of life? Or does she truly find deep and meaningful connections between every incident in her day and throughout all of history? Kalman doesn't have a traditionally religious perspective on life, so even the phrase “Finding God in all things” probably doesn't encompass her attitude towards the world. However, her love of Bertrand Russell and Frederich Nietzsche seems tempered by an optimism that allows her to venture through life without despair. Is there an ultimate purpose to everything? Kalman is agnostic on the final answer to this question. But as an artist, she accepts her own role in making meaning out of disparate life events.

“Between now and five billion years from now, someone will look out of this window. / Someone will admire this yellow vase. / And someone will remember that I did buy a completely sensational hat. Completely” (231-233). Kalman writes these words, accompanied by her own illustrations, after a chapter made up almost entirely of photographs of people (typically elderly) walking through the city. Kalman's fascination with the elderly and with death is important, but this chapter's use of photographs rather than paintings is equally as important. It's one of the bleakest chapters in the book, as Kalman repeats, with variations, that “The sun will explode five billion years from now. Set your watches” (216). Photographs undoubtedly change our perspective on the world even in the act of taking them. However, for Kalman, they represent the first step in a process of ownership that culminates in painted art and narrative. When she is only showing us a photograph, it suggests that she hasn't fully owned this moment in time. As the chapter comes to a close, Kalman includes “photographs” of Austrian bedrooms which were gifted to her. Ironically, these photographs are her own paintings—perhaps because the photographs were gifted to her, she can paint them; she can own them. The photographs in this chapter are strangers who are walking, their back to the photographer. Kalman can't “own” someone who she doesn't understand and who is constantly one step ahead. The man in angel wings she has previously painted—from the front, when he could be understood (171). From behind, a mere photograph will have to do.

But in response to the destruction which awaits our world five billion years in the future, Kalman ironically asks: “That really changes everything, doesn't it?” (216). Of course it doesn't. These people keep walking, even floating, into the future. And so does Kalman, while simultaneously reflecting on the past and owning everything around her (by means of painting) in the present. The book's title, Principles of Uncertainty, captures the problem of art as a tool for memory. For a physicist, the uncertainty principle describes the problem of measuring the smallest particles of the universe (at least, what we believe to be the smallest particles). The act of measuring unavoidably effects a particle in the same way that taking someone's temperature requires opening his mouth. However, taking someone's temperature is not a precise science like quantum physics. Kalman's use of this idea in daily life suggests that the true measurement of life can never be pinned down—that is, that any attempt to examine the world undoubtedly involves redescription. There is always a subtle difference between the way that a camera captures the world and the way in which the human eye sees a scene. Additionally, Kalman's own paintings—some of which we can compare to photographs—display even more of a difference between the original memory and the reproduction.

Kalman helps me to reflect on my own methods of “crafting meaning” in my life. I'm less than agnostic about the ultimate foundations of truth within the universe, but I don't think that the meaning of one's own life is as clearly evident as the musings of a philosopher, the assumptions of the theologian, or the discoveries of an astronomer. For many years, I carried a Nikon D40 DSLR with me wherever I went. My laptop is still filled with hundreds of gigabytes of memories, memories which may be preserved only in the external location of my hard drive. If I lose those pictures, the record of some incidents will disappear from human consciousness altogether. In my late teens, I stopped taking as many pictures, preferring to write, journal, and collect scraps of information. At Loyola, I was introduced to the Examen, which is, among other things, a spiritual practice of narrative. The Examen refuses to see the actions, emotions, and prayers of one's day as disparate events, but part of a larger narrative that Jesuit Hans Urs von Balthasar called the divine “theo-drama.” My desire to capture and re-experience the events of my day hasn't disappeared but has taken other forms. Ever since the invention of painting, we've outsourced our memories to the outside world. In 2014, I think that Facebook serves as one of our primary tools for collective memory, while Twitter is a record of collective thoughts.

I think that for most of us, one of the scariest scenarios imaginable would be to forget our entire past. Our selves are contingent in our histories, in our memories. Losing all of our photographs, diaries, emails, and recorded conversations would be nothing compared to the actual loss of memory of one's history and sense of self. Kalman's fascination with obituaries is proof of her desire that one's history not end in death. And her response to the apparent meaninglessness of this life is to capture, through her art, her experience. The artistic principle of uncertainty is that the truth of experience can never be recaptured. But perhaps, as classical philosophy would argue, art perfects life. Our experiences are mere disparate events; art strings them together in a meaningful manner, even in the face of impending destruction.

The Uncertainty of the Human Experience

            The Principles of Uncertainty reminded me a lot of Humans of New York.  For those who are not familiar, Humans of New York (HONY) is a project started by a guy named Brandon in 2010 in which he photographs people around New York City.  Brandon asks the subjects of his pictures a few questions about their lives to use as the caption to the photo.  Then, these pictures and captions are posted on HONY’s blog and Facebook page for the public to read.  Originally, Brandon started HONY to “create an exhaustive list of New York City inhabitants,” but now he has travelled all over the world, documenting the human experience in various cities.        
            The reception of Humans of New York has been phenomenal; the blog allows readers around the world to catch a glimpse into a stranger’s life, if only for a moment.  The caption that goes along with the picture is what tends to strike most people, and HONY runs the gamut when it comes to the diversity of human experiences.  There is no shortage of sassy old women, truthful little kids, middle aged people struggling with financial or family issues, or immigrants admitting they appreciate America, but it is hard to succeed here.  Humans of New York publishes every story whether they are entertaining, sad, or bitter—these stories and emotions are all part of being human which should be celebrated. 
            The Principles of Uncertainty reminded me of HONY because while the book is specific to Kalman’s worldview, she is a conscious observer of how other people have impacted herself, similar to Brandon’s story.  In the chapter titled “Completely”, Kalman includes two photographs mirroring each other on each page, so the photograph is similar, but her captions may or may not be related.  On pages 205-207, there is a woman who wears a black bow in her white hair, but each picture is of a different woman in a different context.  The captions reads “in the Hermitage you would see this bow on this woman.  Again.  And again.  And then have tea or vodka.  You would be so grateful to follow her and see that bow” (205-207 Kalman).  Kalman may not know the woman with the bow, but that woman reminded her of the Hermitage (an art museum in Russia) and that reminded her of another woman with a similar bow.  She mentally makes all of these connections between total strangers regardless of whether they are significant or fleeting figures in her life. Kalman documents her encounters with all types of people, both living and dead, who have impacted her worldview in some way.
            Therefore, while HONY takes portraits of people to create a comprehensive view of the human experience, Kalman does the inverse and produces pictures of other people to create her own worldview.  But I think Kalman ties the two together well with this concept of uncertainty because really nothing is certain.  With HONY, Brandon never knows what stories these people, who would otherwise be strangers, have to share.  We cannot answer with absolute certainty many of the existential questions Kalman raises in her book.  In humor, we never know if other people will laugh at our intended or unintended humor.  Without knowing the outcome of humor or without knowing how our lives will turn out or who we will randomly meet someday, there is inherent risk in most life endeavors simply because the outcome could be horrendous. 
On the flipside, Kalman knows there will never be concrete answers to “how are we all so brave as to take step after step?  Day after day?” (42 Kalman).  We will never be able to be truly certain about most things in life because we do not all live the same lives or meet the same people, making it extremely difficult (if not impossible) to fundamentally understand the human condition that applies to every person’s life.  The point of HONY and Kalman’s book is to try to understand each other and ourselves a bit better so as to be a little more certain.  Humor, HONY, and Kalman all urge us to ask ourselves hard questions about what it means to be human and if we actually understand each other or if we merely live in assumptions.  All three urge us to not only yearn for certainty through empathy, but to also find the beauty in this uncertainty, recognizing that the possible answers to Kalman’s questions are limitless.     

You Can't Order A Deluxe Grilled Cheese.

            Maira Kalman’s The Principles of Uncertainty first struck me as a rather ambitious project. How can uncertainty be given governing rules? If only we could fit the uncertain future into a neat Excel spreadsheet of principles, wouldn’t life be easier? I was suspicious of anyone who claimed to be able to do that. Upon completion of Kalman’s book, however, I began to appreciate her project and direction. She tell us that she is “curious about all the little things that make up a life” (50), and she strings together a collection of random moments, captured in illustration. These moments are indicative of real life. After all, life itself is simply a collection of moments, and it’s up to us to string them together in whatever way we can. Sometimes time is the only thing that connects our random collection of identities together, and I was struck by this thought when reflecting upon Kalman’s book. She asks the big questions outright, and does not pretend to have any answer to “Are things normal?” or “What will happen to us all?” She chalks it all up to life’s uncertainty, but shows us her own methods for getting along anyway.

The illustrations-coupled-with-musings form is one we’ve seen before. Amy Sedaris’ fascinating entertainment guide also matched her own personal anecdotes with a hodgepodge of images, and followed the same kind of wandering plotline. Some of her comments, such as “You cannot order a deluxe grilled cheese sandwich. There are limits to deluxe,” and “I would love you to come to my party. It will be on a Sunday afternoon. Let’s avoid a nighttime party,” even sound like phrases of which Sedaris would approve. Both women break the convention of a normal novel, and personalize their words with their own worldviews.

            This book also reminded me a bit of the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup. It wasn’t the quiet, musing nature of Kalman’s work that brought the rowdy vaudeville troupe to mind, but rather the breaking of convention. The works of the Mark Brothers and Kalman, and, indeed, Sedaris as well, take the form of a collection of moments, only marginally held together by linear time or plot. While the moments are quipping and hilarious for Groucho, Chico and Harpo, and quietly funny and reflective for Kalman, both brands of humor cause the audience to look inward. The plot is not the point of either, but it is the character study that is of most interest. In both instances I wondered whether I was like one of the characters in their stories. The Marx Brothers made me consider whether or not I am also ridiculous in some way, but Kalman made me think about whether or not I am one of the people whose photograph will be discovered on a flea market keychain in a bin in forty years. They are the same question—the question of identity and the way that identity fits into the larger point of life—but asked in different ways. We can never be certain of this identity until it is in retrospect, but, for now, Kalman lends us her worldview to help us get along anyway.

The Little Things

Catlin Castan
Dr. Ellis
25 November 2014
The Little Things

            Wow! Reading Maira Kalman’s Principles of Uncertainty was certainly a whirlwind experience. From flowery sofas to the “silent sink in the Corbusier house that speaks the truth”(162)—and everything in-between—Kalman’s text works to seamlessly construct a piece of literature that captures the intricate relationship that exists between that which is sacred and that which that is mundane. To convey her point, Kalman works to disorient her readers through the intentionally chaotic presentation of her authorial message. Implicit to the very structure of her text—namely, her use of various mediums: photographs, hand-written text, type, and original illustrations—we begin to recognize divinity, purpose and significance in even the most seemingly insignificant, random, and obscure objects. It is through this chaos that Kalman is able to find rigid order within her world: within our world.

            By addressing her observations of the mundane within the same narrative scope as historical events such as the Holocaust, Kalman is suggesting that the “little things” we encounter in life hold the same weight or relevance as the “larger things”. While Kalman successfully bridges the gap between this disparity, she does not intend to in any way discredit or minimize the pain or suffering that is often associated with the “larger things”; Instead, she offers us this comparison as a way of shedding light on the progression of the little things into the big things. If we accept this notion of continuity, then, “things”—whether large or small—are all one in the same; we begin to understand that the larger things aren’t so large, but rather, a mere compilation of a lot of subsequent smaller things.
            In addition to Kalman’s ability to find both subtle and meaningful connections within our world, she also seems to drive her audience to a point of utter confusion.  Just shy of an existential crisis, Kalman’s work raises many extremely difficult, yet central questions to human existence. Specifically, Kalman asks us if the “central premise of everything” is “the realization that we are ALL (you/me) going to die” (46). Further down on page 46, Kalman admits: “It stops me DEAD in my tracks a dozen times a day. Do you think I remain frozen? No. I spring into action. I find meaningful distraction”(46). Similarly, later in her text, she asks: “Knowing [that the sun will blow up in five billion years], How could anyone want a war? Or plastic surgery? But I am being Na├»ve. And the unknown is so unknowable. And who is to judge? Really (222). In both of these moments, we can obviously detect a pessimistic outlook on life; however, by addressing pessimism in an extreme and humorous way, Kalman is trying to tell us that deeming life “unmeaningful” is equally as absurd as her own writing style. I found this approach rather optimistic—it encourages her readers to relentlessly seek out meaning even if that means participating in something as “trivial” as dissecting a piece of cake. (an activity Kalman would likely not deem as being trivial…)

            While the existential attitude is sometimes a tempting attitude to adopt—who doesn’t question their purpose on a particularly difficult day? However, Kalman tells us that life is always magical if you view it from the appropriate lens. Consistent with existentialism is social mobility. I found this relationship to be particularly relevant to my service learning experience. Specifically, just as people often feel that their actions are essentially meaningless in the grand scheme of our inevitable human nothingness, children who are born into lower socioeconomic households often experience these same feelings—they feel as though nothing they do in life truly matters. This is because they view their current social status as stagnant—a permanent fixture—and in doing so they dismiss their opportunity to overcome their current situation and progress. For example, many of the children whose parents did not attend college assume and accept that same fate for their own lives: they believe that because they have uneducated parents and limited funds that they are unworthy of a better life.  This mindset proves detrimental to their personal and academic development in that they no longer want to perform inside the classroom, in social settings, in life. They figure:  What’s the point of doing well in school when I’ll never get into college or be able to afford it anyway. They fail to recognize their humanly capacity to illicit change and make a difference in this world—something that Kalman would likely detest. However, in taking a Kalman approach, by relentlessly reminding these students of how smart they are—of how worthy they are--at every chance that presents itself, teachers at Tunbridge are able to maximize on “little” opportunities to enhance these children’s self worth—worthiness that will hopefully eventually lead to a larger dream!