Discover more from a fête worse than death
and my queen, Caroline Calloway
Like most people I know, and perhaps most people in the modern world, I remain vastly more resentful of slights I fielded in high school than I am of any of the more serious indignities I have suffered since. Have I been mistreated in morally consequential ways by adults who ought to know better? Yes. Am I a thousand times more bitter about people I hated when I was sixteen? Of course. In my case, the formative smear was: pretentious. Predictably, this label was applied to me by the sort of standard-issue high school bullies who are always picking on bookish teenagers, in movies and in life. To be sure, when I was in high school, I was obnoxious (I actually smoked clove cigarettes, to my retrospective embarassment), and I was also enormously out of my league; I liked art I was too untutored to understand (Godard films, The Sound and the Fury), and I said overblown and self-important things about this art in my earnest and rawly adolescent attempts to understand it. I was pathetic—I was so eager to talk about literature and film and philosophy that I have a physically negative reaction to remembering myself—but, for all my flaws, I was not pretentious. A pretentious person pretends. She pretends to like an artwork she does not actually like, or, maybe worse, she actually likes an artwork but only because it seems like the sort of thing she is supposed to like and not because she has independently assessed its quality. A pretentius person makes an aesthetic judgment not on the basis of the actual object before her but on the basis of auras or vibes. However pitifully I went about it, I genuinely liked the experimental art I said I liked; I devoted my weekends to it because I enjoyed it (though really “enjoy” is too weak a word; will you forgive me if I say I felt called to it? Or that I depended upon it for my survival?).
I no longer like Godard very much, but I still love Faulkner, and I still ruminate obsessively on the pitfalls of pretension. During the fifteen-year attempt to overcompensate for my high school pathologies that has been my adult life, I have tried very hard to be as unpretentious as possible. In a way, rejecting pretension is what doing criticism is. A good critic is genuinely and not just nominally willing to be surprised—impressed by the book everyone hates, disappointed by the book everyone loves, and vigilantly skeptical of marketing and trappings. I’ve always done my best to be open to discovering aesthetic and intellectual value where I do not expect to find them and, conversely, to discovering that a work for I expect to be good is in fact irredeemable. Sometimes, this tendency endears me to self-proclaimed Serious People: they want someone to read Sally Rooney and say, This is actually not very good. Sometimes, it infuriates self-proclaimed Serious People: they want someone to hate everything that is not Joseph Roth (whom I love, obviously).
This brings us to the vexed question of Caroline Calloway. In my piece for the Post this week, I wrote about her new memoir, which is very good. Here’s the piece, which I had a real riot writing: https://www.washingtonpost.com/books/2023/06/22/caroline-calloway-scammer-adult-drama-natalie-beach-review/. I’ve always enjoyed (that is the right word this time) Calloway’s chaotic online aesthetic, but I suspected she would struggle to write a longer book with any real merit or substance. To my surprise, she didn’t. The book was, among other things, a thoughtful and formally innovative reflection on life online, much more so than [REDACTED] and [REDACTED] (recall that it is my policy to refrain from criticizing work when I don’t have time to really justify my crtiticism; feel free to insert the titles of whatever high brow but ultimately unsatisfying internet novels you’re still irked by into the brackets). The whole phenomenon of Calloway is interesting, and performance-art-adjacent, and has much to teach about self-fashioning to someone willing to engage with thought and care. To be honest, the book is much better—much more interesting, much less formulaic, and much more elegantly written—than a lot of the fodder out there that brands itself as Serious. I won’t name names—for the reason stated in the parenthetical above—but you know the kind of book I mean. It has a title like How Bernhard Taught Me to Roil, Roll, and Rant. That kind of thing. Pure middlebrow, instead of the sort of winking and campy lowbrow that is highbrow in its way (and which is infinitely better).
But I don’t even have to log on to Twitter to know that a certain kind of Lit Bro is fuming. What, this is the critic who loves Simone Weil and learned German to read Rilke!!!!!!!! AND SHE’S NOT WRITING ABOUT WERNER HERZOG EVERY GODDAMN WEEK?
I would argue that it’s not just good but important, for aesthetic reasons, to avoid the humorless pomposity exemplified by the kind of person who rejects Calloway on principle. There’s seriousness, and then there’s self-importance, and the latter is stultifying. (And everyone worth anything knows that seriousness and humorlessness are not the same.) Calloway’s book isn’t Ulysses, but that doesn’t mean it is not worth relishing. I think the most apt comparison is to Eve Babitz—unfortunately I had to cut the comparison segment from my review, which was already 300 words over the limit when I filed it, for which reason I also could not quote from the book as much as I wanted to, alack —who makes for similarly light and effortless and sparkling (not to say stupid, not to say unserious) reading. Eve Babitz has become serious-coded because her books have been re-issued by NYRB, a development that gives lit bros permission to delight in them, but there was a time when it would have been easy (and let me stress, idiotic) for this same set to dismiss her as a frothy socialite without actually reading her work. I once wrote a piece on here about something I called the “aesthetics of rationality”. I had in mind, e.g., Jordan Peterson, the kind of person who performs rationality by wearing tweed blazers and speaking slowly and deliberately, all without actually making actual sense when he talks. Calloway is pleasing for many reasons, but one of them is that she is a rebuke to people who exemplify a similar tendency—call it the aesthetics of profundity. A performer of profundity—someone who dimisses e-girls or television on principle without engaging with it, because it seems like the kind of thing someone who reads Heidegger in German should dismiss—is in fact pretentious, and pointlessly retrograde. This kind of person is pretending. They’re pretending to be making aesthetic judgments when in fact they are simply flinching from the superficies.
Something that’s always irritated me about public writing is how often you attract, shall we say, the wrong kind of fans—fans who engage in what Adorno and Horkheimer called “ticket thinking” (a vice that obsesses me, much like pretentiousness). You write a piece about sanctimony literature and then a million people who have exactly one thought a day (“wokeness is a religion”) email you compliments, only to feel disillusioned when you believe sexism is real and write about that, too; you write a number of pieces about high literature and art and then a million people who feel that Svevo is the only true novelist (Svevo is my king, don’t get me wrong) feel betrayed when you also like RuPaul’s Drag Race. It’s a pleasure to upset people so small-minded and a privilege to continue to be stunned by all the beautiful things, high and low, that make the cultural world such a strange, rich, and shocking gift.