The sardonic wit of the 20th century poet, critic, and author Dorothy Parker reveals a person with a keen awareness of the absurdity of her own life lived too close to the flame of fame—all while obsessively studying herself in the mirror. To be noticed for your cleverness and celebrated for it can turn into a terrible trap because life is far more complex—and human emotion more transcendent—than what can be packed into a quip or witticism. Although I have enjoyed the sharp edge of many of Ms. Parker’s writings, it is impossible for any reader to miss the desperate hope embedded within, that of someone who seems always to be searching herself for a tangible truth that she expects her unique way with words to reveal—only to be left grasping at air. One of her most famous poems reeks of both her yearning and disappointment:
Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.
Intense self-awareness can lead to healthful self-examination but it many times curdles into a bitter and embittering brew of self-loathing and disdain directed at those whom we perceive as less sensitive than ourselves regarding the delicate pulsations of the universe. Art, music, and and literature are full to the brim with exquisitely beautiful souls who are too tender to survive a world as brutish as our own. We are to both admire and pity these individuals who are forced to survive on a cold and uncaring planet that fails to understand them.
The famous 1955 photograph of James Dean walking alone (except for, of course, the photographer) through a New York City rainstorm with his jacket collar turned up to ward off the chill of a cruel universe is perhaps the perfect visual representation of our afflicted and precious age. A cigarette dangling from his lips, tragically alone, his shadow on the wet pavement perhaps the foreshadowing of his own sad death later that year, he is the man at once rejected, friendless, and misunderstood. We are invited to observe his beautiful misery and seek virtue in the faux suffering of an international movie star.
Turning this alienation into art—preferably with music featuring an ominous minor piano key in the background—is now the dominant cultural output of our media-saturated modern world. Merely creating beauty is for the birds; exposing private agony is now the modus operandi of our psychoanalytic pop culture. Consequently, the confessional has been moved from the chapel to the public square (and onward now to social media) so that our exquisite personal torments can be shared by one and all, and much of what we now deem “art” is actually a just record of the artist wrestling with private demons inside a showcase window.
Confession can, of course, be good for the soul, and it is possible to learn valuable lessons by observing the struggles of others. However, incessant wailing can quickly lose both its instructional and entertainment value. The unrelenting dreariness of much of today’s cultural output is remarkable for its sour and single-minded focus upon tender souls and spirits destroyed by the troglodyte masses who are simply too stupid to understand the unique wonder of the enlightened few. To find this self-absorbed and self-regarding nonsense uninteresting is apparently to be inadequately attuned to our current zeitgeist of love thyself and mock thy neighbors. “Wokeness” does not provide an excuse for the hatefulness directed at others by those who claim to be operating on a moral or ethical level higher than that of the rest of humanity.
The equation of much modern art and contemporary dialogue derived from its influence is simple: To be misunderstood is to be human, and to be an outsider is construed to be a sign of moral virtue or insight. However, the problem with a world filled with wannabe Dorothy Parkers and carefully coiffed clones of James Deans is that although life can be art and art can be life, someone has to set an alarm, get up, get dressed, go to work, and get the job done for themselves and others—and not call in sick every time existential angst overwhelms them.
A life always looking inward tends to be one that features a lot of excuse-making and irresponsibility; staring out a rainy window while nursing an inner wound doesn’t pay the bills or advance one’s life. Having to sometimes suck it up so as to not turn yourself (and everyone depending on you) into a victim may interfere with wistfully wallowing in the unfairness of it all, but the truth of the matter is that everyone has their problems—yours are simply not as unique as you might believe. Except for the charmed few, most people have to slog along in order to fulfill their responsibilities to themselves or others, and there will be times that the world and the people in it will not readily conform to your wishes. Not only is it unreasonable to believe this will be the case, it is also often the epitome of selfishness. Those who expect everyone to run circles around their needs and wants conveniently forget that others have needs and wants that may be neglected while they are taking the time to brood, have a tantrum—or just check out.
I suspect that our modern celebration of ourselves contributes mightily to our current political and social polarization. If the only values and viewpoints that are correct are your own, it is extraordinarily difficult—if not impossible—to understand why an idea other than yours is worthy of consideration. If you are further encouraged to dismiss opinions other than your own because the very notion of considering an alternative to your beliefs exposes you to “hate speech” (cue the safe space full of therapy bunnies!), self-absorption is dangerously enhanced by self-righteousness, which makes respectful dialogue impossible.
The majority of Americans are desperate for thoughtful discussions that result in reasonable solutions to the many problems facing our country. Unfortunately, our national dialogue is routinely hijacked by those who squelch and shame others because they honestly believe those who disagree with them are worthy of only scorn and sneering. The opinions of the many consequently become captive to the misguided desire of some to promote a false harmony through either censorship imposed from without or encouraged to come from within. The outcome encourages extremism born of frustration with being silenced, and this further poisons any possibility for the sometimes rocky consensus necessary for both governance and a civil, democratic society.
Mirrors are wonderful, and self-study and self-evaluation are normal and necessary components of the journey toward maturity and personal responsibility. However, there comes a point where a line is crossed into a place that actually excludes life’s realities in the service of fantasy that walls one off from others. A cocoon of self-interest and self-regard can be a comfortable spot for some, but it is profoundly damaging to families, friends, and institutions that are compelled to be subservient to a fundamentally immature need to be coddled and catered to. We often discuss the need to tear down the walls that separate us, but we may also need to smash a few mirrors in order to put a stop to the self-veneration that too often blinds us.