Friday, November 5, 2010

The Difference between Cynicism and Hopelessness

Literature can do a lot of things for your brain; one of them is providing the means to distinguish and differentiate related concepts. (Of course, literature is also pretty good at dissolving differentiation, but that's another essay.) Two short, weird, brilliant, disturbing, unsettling novellas; The Beauty Salon by Mario Bellatin and Shoplifting from American Apparel by Tao Lin, when compared to each other show the differences between (and some of the inherent beauty in) cynicism and hopelessness.

The Beauty Salon is set in a semi-apocalyptic, probably Mexico City suffering from some kind of deadly plague. The story's narrator, hero maybe, protagonist definitely, is the transvestite proprietor of the titular salon, though he hasn't styled any hair in years. Instead he spends his time not really caring for men dying of the plague, and not really providing respite or hospice care as one would normally define respite or hospice care, and not really doing anything else for them either besides opening his the door to the salon and giving them a roof to die under. Instead he spends his time caring for an aquarium. He devotes all of his time, energy, and passion caring for, occasionally rare and exotic fish, while people are dying from the plague around him. Bellatin sets it up so you want to apply basic reading techniques to the fish; you want to see them as metaphors for something, human society maybe, but metaphors just don't seem to stick.

Because the narrator engages somehow with the forces in the world, because he chooses some kind of action, because he does something even though he doesn't see any chance for the world to improve, I think this is a cynical work. There isn't belief in a coming better world. None of the problems posed in the world and in the life of the narrator are resolved in any way by the end of the book. The men are still dying of the plague all around. But the work affirms the value of doing something even if that doing something is completely and utterly pointless. So the cynic might say, the world is not going to get better, but I'm going to do my thing anyway. In a way, this definition of cynicism, especially in relation to what we'll see about hopelessness, is not unlike how we often define bravery; being afraid of something but doing it anyway.

Shoplifting from American Apparel is different, not just from The Beauty Salon, but from everything else really. (And let's be honest, The Beauty Salon is pretty different as well.) It's about a young writer with a developing career who, well, just kinda, you know, does stuff. He chats online, he has girlfriends, he shoplifts from American Apparel, his work enjoys a level of success, he moves to New York, he meets people in real life that he's met online and he gives a reading in Florida where he sees a band, ends up kicking around with a few people he meets, and then, well, then it ends. In some ways it doesn't sound nearly as stark, bleak, and downright depressing as The Beauty Salon, but there's something different going on here. Or rather, there's nothing going on. Somehow Tao Lin has constructed a compelling story where stuff, you know, just kinda happens. His narrator and protagonist does stuff but none of it means anything, none of it has any significance. You get the sense that he's not doing stuff because he wants to or believes he should or feels some kind of responsibility to do it, but because biological reality demands doing something.

Hopelessness then is the belief that nothing you do matters, that there is no meaning in any action you can take. Sure you do things, just like the guy in Shoplifting from American Apparel, but not only to those things not mean anything in the GRAND SCHEME OF HUMAN ENDEAVOR, they don't mean anything to the person doing them either. In a way there is a romanticism to hopelessness, a martyrdom, as, (paradoxically but only in a particular way) it takes intensity and passion to not believe in anything. There is a poetic totality to hopelessness that, since we're distinguishing here, might distinguish it from apathy.

So the difference between cynicism and hopelessness is that cynicism allows for meaningful action in the face of one's inability to change the world for the better even if those actions are only meaningful to the one doing them, whereas hopeless does not. However, the concepts are joined by more than being a bit of a bummer; they produce very strange literature.

Literature is inherently more optimistic than cynical and more cynical than it is hopeless. By giving a work of literature to the world, you suggest a belief in your own ability to improve it and you assert the belief in the meaning of the action of writing a book. So works that centered around the antithesis of the act of producing the work are really weird to read. I read them both in one sitting each on separate long walks and the effect was, well, it's strange. Nothing really happened in Shoplifting and yet I keep thinking about Shoplifting without really knowing what it is to think about. And I still have no idea what to think about those fish. You want to make them a symbol for something but Bellatin wrote a work that resists reading symbolism into.

This is a very strange way of saying you should devote an afternoon to each of these books. It's not often that a book is so strange and different that you are left unable to process its effect, or even understand how you feel about, and one of the important functions of literature is posing challenges your brain hasn't faced before. And all those of challenges are worth facing, even if you face them and only end up knowing the difference between cynicism and hopelessness.

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