Last weekend at a dinner party, I watched a guy bury his dreams. I stood awkwardly, hands in my pockets, while he threw clods of dirt around, willy-nilly.
“I used to want to be a reporter,” he said, leaning into me, as if to forge intimacy with a stranger. Now he worked in a large, glass building in downtown Manhattan, doing something for someone attached to some company, the only requirement that he show up on time wearing professional clothes. Triscuit crumbs flew from his wine stained lips. “But then, you know what? I realized there’s not a fucking thing worth reporting. On a local level, I mean.”
“Huh.” He was from New York City. When there’s a bomb threat on the subway, it’s local news. When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad comes to the U.N., it’s local news. I figure the blessing and curse of living in the most famous city in the world is that your news is simultaneously local and global. All you have to do is grab a camera and a notebook and show up.
“Anyway,” he continued. “There’s really no point in being a journalist. All of American journalism is worthless. All of the good ones” – this being the journalists – “are dead.” Together we watched the remnants of his aperitif take on a strange glow, a votive for the deceased.
I didn’t say anything. It felt like an embarrassing admission, as if he’d been carrying the secret of it for years, like a rainy night hit and run. Yet he was so secure in his assessment. There was no equivocation to his time-of-death.
I wanted to ask him what he meant by “American journalism.” Meaning journalism by Americans, for Americans? How does that work? In a land of diversity, how does one isolate an American brand of journalism? Is that like when Project Runway celebrates “Classic American Sportswear”? There was a sloppiness to the term, a lack of specificity. A bullshit veneer.
“You don’t believe me, I can tell from your face.”
I shrugged. “If journalism’s not your cup of tea…”
“I’m telling you, nobody’s doing anything worthwhile.”
I thought about a joke from some Hugh Grant movie whose name I can’t remember. “You’re the most selfish person on the planet!” Sandra Bullock says, all righteous indignation. Foppish Hugh shakes his swath of hair and earnestly replies: “Well, that’s just silly! Have you met everyone on the planet?”
I didn’t wonder aloud how he had managed to become familiar with the work of every American journalist in order to come to his conclusion. I had come to the party for some semblance of friendship, for the free wine and the opportunity to snoop around people’s bookshelves. I wasn’t there to debate the life of an institution.
You could argue that the guy was given to hyperbole, that he was depressed, that he was lost in a thicket of unrealized dreams. All of these things are probably true. He was also expressing an opinion, to which he has every right. But he could have said, “I think American journalism is worthless.” How different would it have been if he mumbled, “Hey, journalism sucks”? That’s not what he said. Wine and questionable hummus aside, he was stone cold sober.
It was a death certificate.
These days the bodies and dicta are piling up. Right after the release of The Humbling, Philip Roth warned that the novel as we know it – as an object, as well as the reading public’s patience with the narrative form – is dead. On 3 Quarks Daily, Evert Cilliers (who apparently really hates graduates of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop) took a scythe to nearly all of contemporary fiction, cinema, music, and art. Authentic human communication is dead. The epistolary tradition is dead. Patriotism, dead. Erudition. Feminism. Democracy, capitalism. Compassion. We say things are dead and dying, left and right, and we’ve never been more certain of our certitude. Why is that?
Fourteen years after high school philosophy class, one Socratic witticism still rattles around in my head. “I know that I know nothing.”
It was in college that the statement gained nuance. Professors weren’t interested in answers but rather how you raised questions. “Talk about…” “Discuss…” “Why might the author have chosen to do this?” There was a sense that we existed in a greenhouse. Dump too many answers on our delicate leaves and we’d fail to thrive. We left college knowing we didn’t know anything, our nescience preserved in an ivy wreath. Everything around us seemed iffy, like it might reveal itself to be another of those illusory shapes on the cave wall. When we returned to the small towns where we were born and raised, we recognized the intractable opinions of our parents as quaint and hopelessly dated, and we rejected them, knowing for sure that our parents, at least, did not know.
Somewhere in the process of growing up, we’re supposed to find a balance between conviction and doubt. To accept a bitter mixture of both. It’s how we learn to be realistic while still taking risks, to dig up questions without getting buried beneath them.
More and more, though, I’m surrounded by friends who say they do know. They know exactly why they can’t go after what they want, why they are destined to be unhappy. Most of the time the reasons are so terribly insurmountable that I want to shy away from them. These children, for whom I sacrificed everything. This mortgage to which I’m shackled. This mountain of debt. This illness. This man or woman I love. I want, for a second, to say, “You’re right. How can we argue with a mountain?” But then I realize that to not argue means that I am saying farewell to my friends, to the dreams that made me want to know and understand them. That I, in my silence, am escorting them by the arm to a large, glass building from which they won’t return.
When someone argues that something isn’t worth doing or experiencing because it’s dead, it is not cynicism. It’s fear. If literature is dead, why worry about writing something as good as your literary idols? You could blog, you could talk to someone on the street, but what’s the point?
There’s no news.
The truth is I’d like to grab a shovel and go after my friends, buried under those unrealized dreams. I want to dig a grave instead for premature proclamations and pronouncements. I’d like to tell that guy that American journalism is not dead; that’s just about the silliest thing I’ve ever heard. There’s not a finger big enough to put on the pulse of that creature.
But I won’t because, of course, I still know that I don’t know. I want these people to be brave and relentless in going after what they want, but maybe they know something I don’t.
After all, I’m never sure of anything, really, except that I’m not yet ready to write an obituary.