Saturday, August 04, 2007

Being Stuck in Kitsch

Some years ago, in a class on postmodern theory, the mention of “kitsch” was frequently made, often tagging an idea for dismissal. The word was new to me at the time, and a fellow grad student defined the concept as all that is garishly common – “kewpie dolls, for example,” she said.

Milan Kundera visits the notion of “kitsch” in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, noting first its origin in German during the romantic mid-1800s and then recalling its initially metaphysical meaning (in true Kunderian style) as “the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and figurative sense of the word … excluding everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence” (248).

The “good life” I have romanticized for so long might be considered “kitsch” when that “quoted” aspiration idealizes a life without shit. When such is the case, “kitsch” will be celebrated, installed in ceremony, institutionalized, nationalized, and reinforced with every Hallmark© card the U.S. Postal Service can deliver. Kitsch can only be kitsch when it draws on the shared feelings and basic images held in common by the mass of people – the unusual situation does not qualify. Kundera writes, “The brotherhood of man on earth will be possible only on a base of kitsch” (251).

I have lived most of my life stuck in “kitsch,” denying shit, and sending too many Hallmark cards prescribed by duty, drenched with a secret panic/hope. I have been properly enthusiastic at parades, big games, and holiday gatherings – doing my part and being appropriately pissed off or sympathetic when others failed to do theirs. I’ve believed it a show of strength to achieve and protect the middle ground, a place of balance and inclusion, the eternal smile … the land of “kitsch.” I hear the Land of Oz, Gatsby’s east-egg almost-yesterday-again hope, and his faith in a world “founded securely on a fairy’s wing” as I write these ideas. I want to believe in kitsch, and I still resolvedly do – for better or worse, but I’m ready to embrace the shit now, too – the kid that won’t talk, unexpected debt, an unruly body, and returning to grad study when I have no confidence at all I can find a way through.

This is not a self-medicating, “truth-telling” move – a jail of its own in so many other ways, but a move to dump the work of shame, reduce the sense of “audience,” and affirm the greater satisfaction to be had in the absence of performance – a life broadcast only in the soothing tones of kitsch.

“As soon as kitsch is recognized for the lie it is, it moves into the context of non-kitsch,” Kundera writes, “thus losing its authoritarian power and becoming as touching as any other human weakness” (256). Human weakness throws a much more interesting and inviting party; “proper” and “model” behavior is a lie at its base, a boring albeit profitable lie in its ability to undergird economic well-being and stabilize identity. Happiness is anchored in repetition, and shit blows every stable pattern to hell and back on a regular basis. It’s not necessarily a pretty site when that happens, but it’s real. Today I’m trading in “happiness” for interesting, challenging, and overwhelming shit. It keeps me alive. Tomorrow I’ll be tired of real and long for a bit of “happiness” again, but I’ll get over it. The best stories are dipped in shit.

Kundera writes that “the longing for Paradise is man’s longing not to be man” (296). Today I embrace my skin.

Kundera, Milan. The Unbearable Lightness of Being: A Novel (Perennial Classics). New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 1999.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. New York, New York: Tandem Library, 1999.

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