This is my new column. It resembles the inside of my belly. One way or another, when I eat, everything is going to end up in that belly. The chipped up bits of food swirl together, hang out, and are then absorbed. And that cycle is how I am going to treat my media intake. Every month I will recount my forays in media ingestion. You see, all the stimulation and expression I experience, process, and, presumably, shed; it’s all lumped together. That’s why the belly is so fitting. While some favor the crackling synapses of the brain, the ascent to yet another glorious new understanding, I truck in matter. I plod through the mixed up byproduct of some serious overeating. Consider me hungry and impulsive, able to irresponsibly vacuum up layers of junk and then dump them straight into my gut. Sure, something useful might stick to my ribs, but invariably some shit’s getting flushed. Need I say more? Ah yes, welcome to my digestive blend.
It only seems appropriate that my offerings for this newborn first month all deal with botched attempts at adulthood. Let’s start with Daniel Clowes’s “The Death-Ray.” This comic book short story deals with Andy, a young man narrating the startling discovery of his own super powers. Located in and fashioned after the comic renaissance of the 60’s and 70’s (think early X-Men and Spiderman), the story takes on the classic hero’s awakening with an unblinking examination. The bright and campy artwork or the Brady Bunch fashion sense belies the stark destruction of Andy’s childhood. As puny high school kids, Andy and his lone buddy devise their own brand of justice, fueled by Andy’s super strength (summoned through nicotine, which reads like a middle finger to the spinach slugging Popeyes of yore) and his titular death-ray. Of course the ray makes death, but not with some bloodied vengeance. Instead, the death-ray erases its target from existence, a quick poof and you’re gone. The suddenness with which Andy’s heroics can make “bad guys” disappear fills his world with suffocating loneliness. Clowes’s tale takes down the hero, the clean sense of good and evil, and our own infirm life choices.
Next up is a flick, the Sundance darling Pariah. Writer and director Dee Rees’s film follows the crises of a closeted African-American lesbian, Alike (ah-lee-kay), struggling to graduate and get the hell out of her parents’ house. Alike’s gender identity is messy in a striking way. Around her friends, Alike lives how she sees fit, a lifestyle and swagger that can be poorly summed up as something like inner-city black butch. Wearing flat brim caps that hide her hair, baggy jeans, and an oversized shirt, Alike is decidedly masculine. Scenes of Alike discovering her own element, like flirting with women, taking in an all ladies strip club, dressing the part, are jammed alongside her increasingly tense home life. Amongst her family, Alike is daddy’s girl, mommy’s former princess, and the angsty older sister of the house. The heterosexual and religious expectations of this 21st century black family crumble hard. Alike is their reality check and therefore their obvious pariah. But unlike the whitewashed oblivion of “The Death-Ray,” Alike’s castigation means real movement, not necessarily a sign of tolerance or progress, but, nonetheless, her road to adulthood.
I want to end on a so-called novel I am struggling to finish off: Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s 1762 Émile, or On Education. Lauded from the get go, it’s now two hundred and fifty years later. What am I doing toying with a better-off-dusty philosophical masterwork? You see, Émile isn’t a novel at all. As the alternate title spells out, it is a treatise on teaching; more specifically, it is a book on raising a kid, emphasis on “a,” just one. Rousseau couldn’t be bothered with kids; in fact, he notoriously sent all of his mistress’s newborns off to orphanages. But perhaps as penance, he made Émile, a six hundred page tome that aims to keep kids free and happy, as close to nature and truth as possible. What does that entail? Certainly not reading six hundred pages of nonsense. Rousseau believes that a kid, well, mostly just a boy, his model student being an imaginary one named Émile, should learn within his means. Rousseau deems children unfit for reading, writing, mathematics, and the scholarly like. What they are fit for is exploring their surroundings, crawling over the countryside, sensory stuff, like breaking sticks and touching streams. If children are to become just and kind citizens, they need to get themselves first. Rousseau is so thorough, so assured, it’s easy to just shut up and take it. But with enough time away from Émile, you understand what a radical, yet outdated, argument is being made.
Today, the effort required to keep all the chaos of civilization at bay is incomprehensible. Children live in a world where the mature and immature are oozing out of every crack, every speaker, every monitor. This is not to blast Jean-Jacques; he knew what he was talking about. Now kids struggle to adjust to the demands of our constantly streaming world. Yep, the off button stopped working awhile ago. Everyone needs to navigate these cultural swamps. To make new maps that show the other humans where our own accounts, our own memories, art, and attempts can be found. At some point, all three works I spent the last month with did just that.
Learn more about the things Ryan reviewed: