Art and ‘relatability,' Nixon and Watergate, WWI and today: Three must-read articles

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WASHINGTON, D.C. - My favorite read of the week, by far: “The Scourge of ‘Relatability’” by Rebecca Mead in The New Yorker. Mead brilliantly lances a cultural boil that has been chafing me for ages – the insistence that an essential ingredient of good art is that one can relate to it.

Mead begins by riffing off some tweets sent by Ira Glass of “This American Life” after he saw a performance of King Lear. “Shakespeare sucks,” he wrote. “No stakes, not relatable.” 

Not relatable. Thusly, Shakespeare is condemned.

Is that the limit of our imagination and our appreciation? That which we can relate to?  I am struck when I talk about novels and movies with people and they say they didn’t like a work because they didn’t like any of the characters. What is so important about liking the characters?  This strikes me as a grand narcissistic homogenizer.

Here’s Mead’s conclusion:

“But to demand that a work be ‘relatable’ expresses a different expectation: that the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer. The reader or viewer remains passive in the face of the book or movie or play: she expects the work to be done for her. If the concept of identification suggested that an individual experiences a work as a mirror in which he might recognize himself, the notion of relatability implies that the work in question serves like a selfie: a flattering confirmation of an individual’s solipsism.

“To appreciate ‘King Lear’—or even ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ or ‘The Fault in Our Stars’—only to the extent that the work functions as one’s mirror would make for a hopelessly reductive experience. But to reject any work because we feel that it does not reflect us in a shape that we can easily recognize—because it does not exempt us from the active exercise of imagination or the effortful summoning of empathy—is our own failure. It’s a failure that has been dispiritingly sanctioned by the rise of ‘relatable.’ In creating a new word and embracing its self-involved implications, we have circumscribed our own critical capacities. That’s what sucks, not Shakespeare.”

I also enjoyed Bob Woodward’s review of a new book by Watergate villain/semi-good guy John Dean, “The Nixon Defense: What He Knew and When He Know It.”  The book was published for the 40th anniversary of Nixon’s resignation.

Dean apparently has listened to 600 unheard conversations from Nixon’s secret recordings.  He concludes there is no Nixon Defense – the president knew everything that was going on around him.

Woodward writes:

“I never doubted that Nixon was the ringleader and driving force behind the Watergate crimes and mind-set. The evidence on previous tapes, the testimony at hearings and trials, and the memoirs of his closest aides made that clear. But Dean’s book seals that conclusion, perhaps forever. He brings the microscope as close to the Nixon of Watergate as anyone has, and he has done so in a generally dispassionate presentation of hundreds of pages of content from the tapes, plus quotations and scenes from previously released recordings, including conversations in which he participated.”

Another anniversary, this time the beginning of World War I, was occasion for an interesting essay by Roger Cohen in The Atlantic, “Yes, It Could Happen Again.” Cohen’s point is a basic one, often obvious in history but obscure in the present:  “The unimaginable can occur.”

Cohen sees danger most everywhere in the present, but especially in Putin’s aggressive nationalism as evidenced in the Crimea.  He also sees pacifism in Europe, an impulse to disengage in America, a powder keg in the Middle East and a naïve utopianism born of the hyper-connected world phenomenon.  Cohen is of the “never forget” school.

“Pessimism is a useful prism through which to view the affairs of states. Their ambition to gain, retain, and project power is never sated. Optimism, toward which Americans are generally inclined, leads to rash predictions of history’s ending in global consensus and the banishment of war. Such rosy views accompanied the end of the Cold War. They were also much in evidence a century ago, on the eve of World War I.”

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