The Moment of Truth — August 16, 2003

The Simulacrum and Its Double

Welcome to the Moment of Truth: the bird in the bush that’s worth twenty of the ones you have in your freezer.

This whole Ahnold for Governor deal has got me thinking, as I so often do, about the way media and so-called reality have slopped into each other.

I know I’m probably idealizing the past. But when I remember back a million years ago, before culture and everything, it really seemed like life was a lot less disorienting. I don’t mean to be nostalgic, in fact I despise nostalgia as a rule, but back in the old days, when you were alone, you were alone. Oh, you had your memories, but your memories were of actual people. Maybe that’s it: reality. Most of your time back then was taken up by reality. Now generally I despise pronouncements like this, and even the concept of reality versus nonreality, I mean who’s to say what’s real and blah blah blah.

But look at it this way: I would walk around alone somewhere, and everything I saw was really there, and even if a god or a demon appeared, it was really them, you know, and not a recording of them from an earlier time, not someone’s opinion of them or a portrayal of them.

Maybe that’s it. Maybe there was just less discussion of life and more direct experience of it. Back in the old days, there was a time for living your life, and a separate time for analyzing it and questioning your soul and the direction of your life and society and such, and we kept those things pretty well segregated.

Maybe that’s it. Maybe it’s the way the discussion of life has completely bled into every corner of reality.

Like in Chicago I’d be on the elevated train. And it was always a kinetic collage made up of billboards reflected in the windows, and billboards seen through the windows, and ads on the train, people on the train, reflections of them in the windows, reflections of yourself, things you saw outside the window, and reflections of things and messages and reflections of messages in this kaleidoscopic storm. And voices would come out of nowhere. In the old days we used to hear the gods talking but now we hear ourselves talking about ourselves and these messages are all vying for supremacy.

And it’s all dislocated, like it doesn’t seem to have a source, it’s all just floating around. And there are these people and toys and rabbits and astronauts and creatures from outer space and athletes and naked ladies and they’re all telling you it’s your fault, or it’s not your fault, or get even or get spicy and the world is this or that and it’s better to be right than correct or this is bad and that is good, and then when you’re alone there’s still all this stuff floating around in your head. So if you’re alone and, say, you get stung by a bee, and then you look around and there’s all these voices. And where are they and who are they and when are they?

In the old days if I got stung by a bee, granted there might be some social ramifications, I guess, but, I mean, the whole social cacophony wasn’t instantly all over you like a cheap suit with get spicy and just do it and don’t believe the hype and you deserve a break today. I mean I know I deserve a break so just give me the frickin’ break and shut up about it already.

Anyway, I’m not saying things were better a million years ago. They were just … different. That’s all.

Speaking of relationships — and isn’t that what we’re always speaking of? Have you ever wondered, as I often have, how much of your romantic behavior is lifted from the movies? If you think about it, the only place most of us get to observe people being romantically intimate is on TV or in the movies. And of course it’s better in the movies. And I’m not even talking about sex. I’m talking about the behavior surrounding the pursuit of sex and/or love. And even if your friend tells you in depth about his or her courtship culminating in intimacy, it’s still just a story. I mean, as far as I’m concerned there’s just no question that the movies are our most vivid direct models for the private world of intimacy. This is not even that profound an insight, if you ask me. I even feel kind of stupid just bringing it up.

But it brings me to the topic of Tarzan. Tarzan and Jane. Now in the original book by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the first time Jane and Tarzan get together, he rescues her from an animal or some pirates and carries her to the beautiful idyllic jungle. And it’s Edgar Rice Burroughs’ contention that during their idyll Tarzan behaved like a perfect gentleman, you see, because of his breeding, don’t you know, which doesn’t just mean upbringing, no, apparently the romantic behavior of the English aristocracy was genetic, so even in the jungle, raised by apes, this Tarzan was a perfect gentleman. Now to us in this jaded age, of course this seems idiotic. As well it should. And every age has its different take on what Tarzan and Jane did together. In Bo Derek’s movie it was a little different from in the book. And in the movie Greystoke, again, a different take. Every generation remakes Tarzan to reflect its own prejudices. But my opinion is that, if we could know what really happened between Tarzan and Jane, alone there in the jungle in Africa in the early part of the last century — if we could know that, we just might unlock one of the secrets of human nature. I mean I know it’s just a made up story but still, if I could be a fly on the wall in that jungle.

Nature itself is just a story we make up about what we’d be like if we weren’t full of artificial ingredients. This isn’t to say we can’t learn from nature.

The problem with nature is it’s so often versus nurture.

There once was a woman named Helen Kane who sued the animator Max Fleisher because she believed Betty Boop was based on her. Part of Fleisher’s response was to get five flappers together for a newsreel to act like Betty Boop, thereby disproving the notion that the big-headed babe was based on any one bimbo. Now if Helen Kane was upset because she thought Betty Boop was her, imagine how she felt when she saw these five other skanks doing her act. When your identity is that intertwined with the culture’s noisy conversation about itself, and not even with a dignified part of the conversation, but with a cartoon, I mean, then you’re a goner. There’s no escape. You just become your own rope to hang yourself with.

But I don’t think most of us are that much better off, actually. It’s just that we are too apathetic to yell back into the noise machine, “Hey, that’s me you’re talking about, when you’re talking about that car or that cereal or that cartoon bimbo or that prop 209 or that woman who chopped off her husband’s weenis.” Sometimes we’re too lazy, sometimes we’re too embarrassed, sometimes we have too much common sense, sometimes we just think it won’t do any good. But everyone feeds himself back into the noise machine to some extent, for good or for bad.

Go see the movie American Splendor, about Harvey Pekar, and think about it.

And so then there’s the opposite reaction to that which is to try to escape from society’s discussion of itself. One way people in the United States try to do this, which is amazingly common in spite of the fact that it has proven time and again to be a very crappy strategy, is the Third World Journey. If you go on the Third World Journey hoping to escape the noise machine, you are certainly destined to learn, quite to the contrary, that not only can’t you escape it, but that you yourself are almost a little self-contained engine for regenerating it in all its perversity and obnoxiousness everywhere you go. If you’re not interested in learning this sobering lesson first hand, you can approximate the experience by watching the movie Three Kings. Or better yet, Hearts of Darkness, which is Coppola’s wife’s way of telling Coppola the same thing he tried to tell everyone else in Apocalypse Now. Or Swimming to Cambodia, which is Spalding Gray’s way of telling himself what Coppola’s wife was telling Coppola. Or what Max Fleischer was trying to tell Helen Kane.

There are so many ways of expressing the fact that escape is impossible. All we can do is get drunk. Intoxication is also a very popular form of escape attempt. There are two reasons why it doesn’t work: first of all, like love, intoxication is a form of romance, and we already know that we draw our most vivid models of romantic behavior from the movies, so in the end we’re just acting out what we’re trying to escape.

Second, the whole cultural noise machine is itself a form of delirium. So we’re not only acting out what we’re trying to escape, we’re also putting it into the same delirious framework.

Another popular way we try to escape is by having a Wilderness Experience. Wilderness Experience is the name of a company that makes camping gear, which is only one of the many reasons why a wilderness experience is no way to escape. Another reason is that when you try to escape into a wilderness experience, all you’re really doing is trying to find out what happened to Tarzan and Jane on that romantic day in the jungle. And we already know that when you try to find out what happened to Tarzan and Jane in the jungle, you just end up inventing a story about what you already believe about it. You can’t go back to Tarzan and Jane in the jungle because Werner Heisenberg said so. And anyway it’s just a made up story. So again you’re better off just staying home and getting drunk and renting one of the Tarzan movies, preferably the one that most suits your preconceived notions about human nature.

Or you can take matters into your own hands and make your own Tarzan movie.

But forget about the escaping into the wilderness. The best that can happen to you in a wilderness experience is that you relax and get some exercise and fresh air. The worst is that you can die. And although dying is another popular form of escape, there are many drawbacks to it as well. First of all, you’re dead. Which limits your options. Second of all, there’s the life flashing before your eyes thing, which is very cinematic. Rent the movie Brainstorm with Natalie Wood and Christopher Walken if you don’t believe me.

Most important, though, dying, like intoxication and love, is a form of romantic behavior, and as I’ve told you over and over, we draw our models of romantic behavior from the movies. So if you’re really that interested in dying you’re probably better off just seeing a movie where people die.

So as far as I can tell there’s no escape.

This has been the Moment of Truth: Good Day!