The Point of No Reproach

I am, in general, a big fan of criticism, iconoclasm and contrarianism. I use some variation of the phrase “thinking critically” pretty much everyday. Whenever conventional wisdom forms about a certain subject, I instinctively take the opposite point of view.

Some people view these characteristics as flaws, but I consider them a point of pride.

In spite of this inclination towards criticism, there a few subjects on which I am downright dogmatic.

I noticed this most recently while reading Infinite Summer, the online book club for David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, probably my favorite novel of all-time. There was a discussion of the novel’s inclusion of endnotes and whether or not this aligned with the book’s themes, or was simply a stylistic pretense. My gut instinct, however, was to dismiss those who were anti-endnotes as morons who couldn’t possibly understand the book.

Of course, this is ridiculously unfair. Including endnotes in a novel is a pretty weird thing to do, and it’s a totally reasonable objection to say that including them is stupid or silly. For me, however, trying to imagine the novel without endnotes is like trying to imagine The Lion King without Scar.

Normally, though, I hate this line of thinking. I hate it when certain subjects are considered “off limits” or “beyond reproach.” We shouldn’t just accept certain things because they have always been done, or because they are the expected thing to do; things ought to be judged on their own merit. The only way to do that it is for their merit to be open to debate.

When it comes to literature, movies, music and other works of art, though, this can be very hard. Sometimes, but not often, a work strikes me as so profound that I can’t really come up with intelligent things to say about it; the object in question is so good that I simply accept it for what it is.

I often find myself in this scenario when I’m asked to explain what I like about Bob Dylan. I end up saying really stupid things like, “He’s just so awesome” or “His lyrics are so profound” (which, at times, is actually a hard premise to defend: Times are changing? No shit). I could probably construct a much more sophisticated and reasonable defense of TV on the Radio or Sonic Youth, two bands I like far, far less than Dylan. With Dylan, though, I find myself unable to see the flaws that other people see, so I can’t really defend or explain them.

Similarly, Wallace, Shakespeare, The Godfather, Kurt Vonnegut, The Wire, and a few other things spark similar feelings in me. In some sense this contradicts the spirit of contrarianism I so passionately endorse, particularly given how incredibly conventional and mainstream my tastes are (seriously, Shakespeare and The Godfather? How original). With that said, I think works of art have the capacity to engage us at a level beyond the intellect.

Certain things just cross a point where discussions of certain elements of a work seem senseless, because the work as a whole is so good. Something that may be a mistake in a lesser film/book/song— a bad line, awkward prose, odd tunings, etc.— just seems like a charming quirk that contributes to the profound effect of the whole. I don’t expect everyone who reads Infinite Jest (or listens to Blonde on Blonde, or watches The Godfather) to be as forgiving of these flaws, but I cannot see them any other way. Overlooking these peccadilloes may inhibit our discussions, but it enriches my experience.

I wonder, though, given the disagreements I’ve had with Tim and Josh on the questions objectivity in movies, if this is a feeling unique to me. I’m not saying that Tim and Josh are incapable of loving works of art (I’m implying it, but I’m not saying it), but I wonder if they (or other people) have the same trouble articulating reasons for their tastes, particularly of their tastes for things they claim as “favorites.”

9 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by janechong on August 20, 2009 at 12:28 AM

    “I wonder if they (or other people) have the same trouble articulating reasons for their tastes, particularly of their tastes for things they claim as ‘favorites.'”

    Expand the parameters of your inquiry -and it looks like you’re not so dead set against religion.

    “Sometimes, but not often, a work strikes me as so profound that I can’t really come up with intelligent things to say about it; the object in question is so good that I simply accept it for what it is…I think works of art have the capacity to engage us at a level beyond the intellect.”

    So some would say about God.

    Reply

  2. Posted by Tim on August 20, 2009 at 1:52 AM

    Oh man…she beat me to it. Looks like I still have to write that “In Defense of…God” post after all.

    Reply

  3. Posted by John S on August 20, 2009 at 6:56 AM

    One key difference: Infinite Jest and Bob Dylan are real.

    Reply

  4. Posted by janechong on August 20, 2009 at 10:02 AM

    Thought you’d pick a fight on this point. But I’d argue you, too, are positing existence.

    “a work strikes me as so profound that I can’t really come up with intelligent things to say about it”

    Concept of God, concept of profundity -what legitimates the one? How are you any more rational, in your defense of the disputable existence of some element – whatever it is that constitutes inherent worth -in a work of art, than he who insists on the existence of a creator of all great works?

    Reply

  5. Posted by Dan on August 20, 2009 at 4:05 PM

    Just because John is “lazy” and cannot introspect to determine what he likes about Dylan does not lead to the premise that God exists.

    Reply

  6. Posted by janechong on August 21, 2009 at 4:40 AM

    No one posited God’s existence.
    I do arguing John is positing the existence of something for which he can articulate no intelligible defense. By his own admission.

    Reply

  7. Posted by janechong on August 21, 2009 at 4:41 AM

    Er..do argue.

    Reply

  8. […] The Wire, tooting of one's own horn. Leave a Comment First off, John, thanks for pointing out that you’re kind of a contrarian. Based on your posts earlier this week that attacked typical American villains in Atticus Finch and […]

    Reply

  9. Posted by Douglas on September 22, 2010 at 3:50 PM

    Yeah, John, this is interesting. I don’t know if I share that characteristic or not…I mean, whenever I tell people about The Wire, I always say, “It was described to me as the best show ever on television, and after watching it I can confirm that it is.” And then people usually say “Yeah, I’ve heard other people say that, too.” And then I insist, “Yeah, and they’re all right.” Of course, I think to some extent I can defend this intellectually, but of course there are admittedly irrationalities, like this one you might recall. It’s an essentially true, stylistically re-imagined excerpt from a conversation among you, me, and Carlos that had already proceeded much like the generic example I described (I think we were going to Tyler’s Taproom):

    Carlos (clearly asking you): Is it better than Lost?
    Me: Oh, it’s so much better than Lost.
    Carlos: What? You haven’t even seen Lost!
    Me: So what? I haven’t seen The Sopranos either, but I still know The Wire’s better.

    Not my best logic, but I’ll never back down from the conclusion (and since then, by the way, I’ve watched the pilot of The Sopranos–nowhere as good as the entire series of The Wire).

    I feel, though, that there is something different about television, because I tend to view television as text rather than art. Not that the two never overlap (but who gives a shit about poetry, anyway?), it’s just that you can point to specific developments in written television–that’s kind of the point. I don’t think anyone’s liking of television could be described as even “significantly irrational” (and yes, that includes Degrassi). That is, it’s mostly rational with a few emotions/intuitions/etc thrown in for flavor. But to describe a Bob Dylan song…it just seems modally distinct. To that end, I’ve often felt different for NOT having that feeling you describe. I’ve never encountered a song, painting, photograph, or film (which sometimes is more analogous to tv, but clearly not always) that I thought was beyond reproach, and I think in general I have a much weaker response to these media than do other people. That’s not to say that all my tastes in those media are rationally defensible, but rather that I would never feel the same strength of belief as I would with something like The Wire.

    Also, these irrational preferences could theoretically be explained on a physiological level because they correspond to actual, empirical things. An explanation of our irrational preferences is ultimately knowable and constitutes no analogy to the God question.

    And now, an all-new episode of “Jake and the Little Kid”, guest starring Jane as “Little Kid”:

    Jake and the Little Kid are walking on the quad.

    Jake: Pepperoni is the best pizza topping, no question.
    Little Kid: How can you defend that rationally?
    Jake: What? No…it’s just a thing that tastes good to me.
    Little Kid: Concept of taste, concept of God, what’s the difference? I mean when you think about–
    Jake: Fine, I’ll go to church!
    (beat)
    Little Kid: You’re going to “cook out?”
    Jake: No, I said I’m going to church.
    Little Kid: That’s soooo cool!

    End of episode.

    Reply

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