Seinfeld and Sisyphus: some thoughts

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So, FOX Sports has a bracket going for the best Seinfeld episode, and aside from undoubtedly being less of a waste of your time than actual March Madness (final two paragraphs), it got me thinking about some things.

First off, no, for the record, I don’t see the irony in implying that Seinfeld is not a waste of your time. Seinfeld was genre-defining, the original. But I’ll save the soapbox sermon for another time.

Seinfeld is often billed as “the show about nothing.” Jerry Seinfeld recently did a Reddit AMA in which he had this to say about the show’s subject matter:

The pitch for the show, the real pitch, when Larry and I went to NBC in 1988, was we want to show how a comedian gets his material. The show about nothing was just a joke in an episode many years later, and Larry and I to this day are surprised that it caught on as a way that people describe the show, because to us it’s the opposite of that.

Now, any good critic knows that authorial intent is suspect at best, but what’s important about the above statement is not the positive assertion of what the show is about, it’s the negative assertion that makes us question the cliché that Seinfeld is about nothing.

One of my college writing professors often made the distinction between what a text is “about” and what it is “About.” What it’s about is the element of story we call plot. What it’s About is something more akin to its themes. So, Moby Dick is about a bunch of guys killing whales, and more specifically about one guy trying to avenge himself on one whale, but it’s not About that. What it’s About requires more than a cursory reading, and can be a subjective analysis.

I think it’s significant that “the show about nothing” caught on so quickly, and was accepted by so many people. It’s notable that most people’s first encounter with the phrase was in its spoken form on the show. The distinction between “about” and “About” is only possible in writing, not in speech. So, if we reject that Seinfeld is about nothing, is it possible that it might actually be About nothing? (Or perhaps About Nothing?)

The show is about things — obviously, otherwise there is no plot — but their ultimate significance is nil: it’s About nothing (which is distinct from it not being About anything). I can’t remember which actor said it, but I think in the DVD commentaries for the show someone pointed out that the characters in Seinfeld are not people to admire. They’re the worst sorts of people. But their lives are recognizable, and so their Nothing, their lack of direction and meaning and significance, is ours. “Show about nothing,” then, is less of a statement about the show as it is the show’s statement.

This isn’t really a fully developed argument, just some thoughts that occurred to me from synthesizing ideas from a few disparate sources. As regards the title, it’s a reference to Albert Camus’s treatise against nihilism, “The Myth of Sisyphus.”

Can a show About nothing also be a comedy? Apparently so. After all, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

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Today in better writing than mine: Ralph Waldo Emerson on originality of expression

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A man’s power to connect his thought with its proper symbol, and so to utter it, depends on the simplicity of his character, that is, upon his love of truth, and his desire to communicate it without loss. The corruption of man is followed by the corruption of language. When simplicity of character and the sovereignty of ideas is broken up by the prevalence of secondary desires, the desire of riches, of pleasure, of power, and of praise, — and duplicity and falsehood take place of simplicity and truth, the power over nature as an interpreter of the will, is in a degree lost; new imagery ceases to be created, and old words are perverted to stand for things which are not: a paper currency is employed, when there is no bullion in the vaults. In due time, the fraud is manifest, and words lose all power to stimulate the understanding or the affections. Hundreds of writers may be found in every long-civilized nation, who for a short time believe, that they see and utter truths, who do not of themselves clothe one thought in its natural garment, but who feed unconsciously on the language created by the primary writers of the country, those, namely, who hold primarily on nature.

But wise men pierce this rotten diction and fasten words again to visible things; so that picturesque language is at once a commanding certificate that he who employs it, is a man in alliance with truth and God. The moment our discourse rises above the ground line of familiar facts, and is inflamed with passion or exalted by thought, it clothes itself in images. A man conversing in earnest, if he watch his intellectual processes, will find that a material image, more or less luminous, arises in his mind, contemporaneous with every thought, which furnishes the vestment of the thought. Hence, good writing and brilliant discourse are perpetual allegories. This imagery is spontaneous. It is the blending of experience with the present action of the mind. It is proper creation. It is the working of the Original Cause through the instruments he has already made.

from “Nature

Sin raíces: a rambling post that doesn’t quite know what it’s about

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Keillor on location

Words, words, words

My favorite word in Spanish is enraizado (followed closely by ojalá). I like words; I guess it comes with liking to read and write. Somewhere (I lost it) there is a long (and ever-growing) list of my favorite English words. In Russian, my favorite word is actually a phrase: Я с удовольствием (ya s udovol’stviyem), which means something like, “my pleasure.” In Mandarin I’m still searching for a favorite, but in the meantime I like the way 週末 (zhōumò — weekend) sounds.

Enraizado means rooted. I learned it by reading a commentary on Pablo Neruda’s poetry in Spanish. (I found the commentary in Capitol Books in D.C., in the bathroom, which is their foreign language section).  Looking it up, it appears that arraigado is the more common way to say rooted, and so I already like enraizado for being a less common word. I like also that raíz, the Spanish word for root, shares the same root (see what I did there?) as the English word radicle, which reminds me of organismal biology, one of my favorite classes in college. And, less esoterically, mainly I just like the way it sounds, the way it feels to say it (if only I could describe how it feels to say a word so evocatively as Nabokov does).

But its meaning doesn’t gain much traction in my life. And that’s something I often think about.

Impersonal geographies

Feb. ’14 (the brain article is worthy of a lengthy discussion of its own)

Garrison Keillor wrote an article for last month’s issue of National Geographic that he dubbed, “a personal geography.” If I didn’t have so much I wanted to say regarding the article, I would post it without comment as “Better writing than mine.” It’s very easily one of my favorite pieces of short non-fiction.

More memoir than reportage, the piece tells about a place — Mineappolis-St. Paul — by telling about one person’s experience of that place. Keillor was born in the Twin Cities. He’s lived, loved, and lost there. And, now that he’s growing old there, he honored the place with a wonderful essay. His, and the city’s, is a story with roots.

Geography, according to Apple’s pre-installed dictionary, is:

the study of the physical features of the earth and its atmosphere, and of human activity as it affects and is affected by these, including the distribution of populations and resources, land use, and industries.

As an delineation of the province of National Geographic, that definition goes a long way.

National Geographic writers and photographers are reporters essentially. Adventurers, if you want to speak romantically. They go places and give overviews of the goings-on there. Their articles are full of snippets of interviews, summaries of research, brief histories of locations and peoples. They are tourists: in places, in controversies, in conflicts, in lives; so that we can learn something of the “physical features of the earth and its atmosphere, and of. . .” etc.

Science and philosophy

Dorion Sagan (yeah, his son) writes:

The difference between science and philosophy is that the scientist learns more and more about less and less until she knows everything about nothing, whereas a philosopher learns less and less about more and more until he knows nothing about everything.

National Geographic’s typical approach is, by this tongue-in-cheek definition, a scientific one.

You can’t learn all there is to know about a place or a subject from a National Geographic article. That’s not the way it works. You can get the basics. You can learn enough to investigate on your own. But you won’t be an expert. And with such wide-ranging, ambitious subject matter, it’s no wonder that the coverage only just breaks the surface. Even then it only breaks a small area of the surface.*

Keillor’s article hits home closer to the philosophy end of Sagan’s satirical spectrum; we learn a whole lot about not a whole lot. If I hadn’t read the article, I wouldn’t believe that Minneapolis-St. Paul could be an interesting place, a place worthy of National Geographic’s pages. From my perspective, from the outside, I would have thought that it is everything that’s worst in America, especially the Midwest. But I was proven wrong by a writer who has both the ability and the wherewithal to communicate the quintessence and import of an otherwise unexceptional place.

What any of this has to do with me (as you are, of course, dying to know)

I’ve moved a few times in my life, not a lot, but a few, and the trend seems to be that the rate of my peregrinations is increasing — that I can expect to call any new place “home” for less time than I did the last. And every time I leave somewhere that has become home, I am always confronted with the question: why?

When a place is your home, as you spend time there, you integrate yourself into the networks of its reality, its commerce, its society, not unlike Conan Doyle’s image of a man as a spider in the center of a web of which he feels every vibration. You forge an identity relative to the place and its people, as you have come into contact with them. These connections grow stronger with time, and deeper. You put down roots. You gain nourishment from them.

Uprootings are traumatic. Things are lost, irrevocably. Small pieces that may not be vital, but even so formed a part of the whole. A hole is left behind, but it fills. You won’t fit back into it again, not exactly. The deeper the roots, the stronger the organism, but also the more delicate the transplant.

When I leave one home for a new one, I am forced to ask if perhaps I wouldn’t be happier growing deeper into one place, if maybe I couldn’t gain more fulfillment that way. And I am torn. My life goes one way, but sometimes my heart another.

Thoreau, in defending his decidedly sessile stint at Walden pond, calls into question the idea that seeing the world is a good thing in itself. “It is not worth the while,” he says, with characteristic wile, “to go round the world to count the cats in Zanzibar.” If you’re incapable of self-improvement at home, I take him to be saying, then you’re going to be incapable of self-improvement abroad.

I’m addicted to reinventing myself, I think — to learning to live in a new place, as a slightly new person. I cherish the freedoms these errantries provide me. But I also sometimes lament the costs I pay, especially in relationships with friends and family.

Is a life made fuller by growing deeper, or more broad? Is the scientist or the philosopher the better person? Would I rather have the life of a typical NatGeo writer, or that of a Keillor or a Thoreau? Is it pretentious for me to title this post in Spanish? Whenever questions like these keep me up at night, count on me to write about them until I end up more unsure than when I started.

Words, though amusing to curate and hear and speak and write, can sometimes seem insignificant — full, as it were, of sound and fury; here’s to hoping this tale’s teller isn’t quite a complete idiot.**

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* Richard Feynman once said that there is “an expanding frontier of ignorance.” I can’t for the life of me remember where I read or heard it, but I’m aware of someone explaining the acquisition of knowledge in terms that go something like this: think of the knowledge you have as a circle. The circumference of the circle is where your knowledge meets all the knowledge that exists, everything you don’t know; the circumference is the “frontier of ignorance.” As you learn more, the radius of your knowledge circle grows, but as the radius increases, so too, proportionally, does the circumference. The circle is bigger, but it also comes into contact with more of the unknown — the more you know, the more you know you don’t know (read it again; it makes sense). Your awareness of your own ignorance grows as your knowledge grows. Sagan’s scientist then, would have a lopsided “circle” that spikes out extremely far in one direction, but wanes in other areas; the philosopher would have an even circle, but one that doesn’t reach as far in any particular direction. This doesn’t have a whole lot to do with anything, but I’ve always found that illustration wonderfully instructive. I wish I could remember where I first came across it.

** Yes, I’m well aware that if foreign language titles are pretentious, then unattributed Shakespeare references are the absolute height of arrogance.