1. If every sound is potentially the product of some finite number of sine waves, is every barnswallow’s flight potentially the product of some finite number of perfect circles?
2. Which is best: dirt, a beetle, a chipmunk, or a sparrow? Is there a hierarchy implied in the series? If so, in which direction does the hierarchy go, and with respect to what is it arranged? If not, why not?
3. If a finch alights on a branch and bobs his body in such a way that his body moves while his head remains entirely motionless, why is his motionlessness so convincing? Why does the finch seems to be making a legitimate bid to be the only motionless thing in the universe?
4. Given an evergreen shrub whose dark green tips, after a heavy rainfall, acquire a shoot of brighter, more livid green, calculate the taste of the brighter part against your fingers.
5. Why does a jet stream against an azure sky dissolve more slowly the longer you think about death?
6. Given a parabola whose apex is the zenith and whose point of inflection is just out of reach, what would you expect to find at its end? Why is it always brighter at the periphery?
All answers should be given in jewels, Lieder (or, when appropriate, microLieder), inchworms, or Sehnsucht per square minute; whichever you found most of outside your window on the morning that the question first became pressing. You may not use a calculator.
If you’ve seen The Lego Movie, you know that its tone is playful, self-deprecating, and whimsical. It has themes, but refuses to be ponderous about them. When the Master Builder Vitruvius states the moral message of the film in so many words (something along the lines of “You are special if you believe you are”), he follows up right away with a disclaimer: “I know it sounds like a cat poster, but it’s true.”
Of course, this disclaimer draws a laugh if you happen to be thinking exactly that before he says it. But the joke is also supposed to be cathartic. If you’re given permission to laugh at the silliness of the theme, maybe you can move past derision and also accept the message.
What is it about a platitude that makes us gag? Do we just think it’s wrong? Then all we need is to be reminded that truisms are true, and the nausea will subside. But that isn’t enough, is it? We also need to be able to laugh it off. Because a platitude is worse than false–it’s ridiculous. Innocent of all worldly wisdom, radiating naïveté, it is a sitting duck for mockery. If you are ever on the internet (apparently, you are), you’ve probably digested enough mockery that when you hear something high and empty sounding, you can already hear its ironic echoes resounding through the feeds and streams. It’s as inevitable as the closing bars of a song, that smug moral pronouncements will soon be reduced to sneering travesties.
Call it bathetic cadence.
Now if you want to repeat a platitude in an atmosphere like this, what do you do? You inoculate it, by mocking it yourself. There’s no satisfaction for mockers in taking you down if you’ve done it yourself in advance. Where I come from, we call that an “apotropaism.”
*laughes at all my haters* lol the jokes on u. theres no way u can hate me mor than i hate myselbf
— jomny sun (@jonnysun) April 5, 2014
This is exactly what Vitruvius does when he delivers the message of the movie. (Frozen makes a similar move by having its moral not intoned by a weathered sage but casually dropped by a confirmed idiot.) Children don’t need such apologies, but their parents do, because we’ve grown up in an age of irony. If we want to share an earnest moment with our children, it has to be post-ironic. It has to give us permission to laugh it to scorn even as we take it in.
What do these post-ironic apotropaisms (consider this your take-away phrase to sound impressive when you are describing this article to your friends) mean? Calling them “post-“ironic implies that we’ve made some progress. Irony must have been a step in the right direction or we’d be trying to get back to the “pre-” ironic. Getting past irony must be even better.
But where have we gotten? A platitude in brackets is still a platitude. If receiving it from a self-deprecating source keeps us from rejecting it, maybe we were rejecting it for the wrong reasons. We should reject platitudes not because they are ridiculous or even because they are false, but because the problems they solve are always inconsequential. Wanting to feel special, for instance, is a distraction from actually doing something that matters, whether it gives you a sense of fulfillment or not. If we simply override our disgust at platitudes, then we are losing the benefit of an ironic sensibility that protects us from such self-satisfied affirmations.
What we need is a post-post-ironic sensibility that is not just a return to irony but an improvement on the whole fruitless back-and-forth between irony and sincerity. Irony can and should be charitable and edifying instead of cynical and destructive. Sincerity does not have to be naive and trite. It can be literate and profound.
If like me, you have been listening to Bryan Cranston recite Ozymandias over and over all week long (if you haven’t, now’s your chance!), the following thoughts have probably crossed your mind:
If you listen to the way Cranston reads that line, he doesn’t seem too sure himself what do with it, other than “mocked” is a nice emotional word so let’s break it extra bad on that one.
But fear not, dear readers. Amos Johannes Hunt, Ph.D.c., is on the scene. I won’t allow this excellent poem not to make sense.
The problem actually starts a few lines back, with the word “survive.” Cranston, like everyone else I’ve ever heard reading the poem, seems to take it as the end of the thought. (For the grammatically initiated, he’s reading it as an intransitive verb, with no object). It just means “live on.” Which is fine, if you ignore the line we’re trying to explain. It doesn’t attach to anything else in the sentence, which really ended at “survive.”
No, I won’t permit that. Let’s reconsider. What if the word “survive” is transitive, meaning “live longer than,” the way you read it in obituaries? John Q. Corpse is survived by his two sons. Now we’re waiting to hear what the passions outlived. We don’t get it right away, because Shelley throws in another thought first (a participial phrase): “stamped on these lifeless things.” Let’s bracket that out and see where it leaves us. The passions of Ozymandias “yet survive [outlive] the hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.”
Now which hand do Ozymandias’s passions survive, and which heart? “The hand that mocked them” is the sculptor’s. Sorry, “mocked” just means “represented” here. Not every line has to be a bitter, ironic take-down okay? “The heart that fed” isn’t so obvious, because Shelley is indulging in a little Latinate syntax here. Again, it looks like the thought is over. The heart fed. Like it was eating something. But we’re supposed to understand that it fed (“gave sustenance to,” not “ate”) the same passions that the sculptor’s hand mocked. So it’s Ozymandias’s heart.
All right now get ready for this poem to get even a little more awesome. It’s not just about the fall of empires. It’s about the fall of the poet, too. The hand of the sculptor gets linked with the heart of the emperor. It’s as though Shelley were saying: an empire won’t save you; a sculpture won’t save you; even writing “Ozymandias” won’t save you. It’s as though he knew his poem was going to be repeated around the world forever, and he just wanted to remind us that he still had to die anyway.
When artists represent the futility of ambition, we sometimes forget that poetic ambition has the same limitations as any other.
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