Thursday, August 22, 2013

Movie Quotes as Misery: Claudia Rankine's "Don't Let Me Be Lonely"

 I am not one for quotations. I'm not sure if it's because I don't have the memory for it, or if I'm an inattentive reader (not absorbing the words well enough to recall them later), or if I'm simply not interested in repeating others' verbatim. I am in the early stages of applying for a number of teaching jobs and fellowships, and as I've been reading through countless craft discussions, cover letters, and teaching philosophies, I am amazed  (and slightly overwhelmed) by the callbacks people make. I have heard from Stegner, Didion, Weil, Mann & Montaigne, and these quotations seem to evoke a sense of writerly influence, a sense of historical or cultural weight that I do not connect with.

And, yes, most of these quotations are probably not recalled from memory—any number of these lines can easily be found with a quick Google search—but still I am astounded at how so many of my friends and colleagues can draw so directly from literature, can draw the lines so clearly between their own ideas and their inspiration while I often find myself describing books in such vague phrases as "during that one scene on the boat," or "when the main character said that thing about his sister to the judge."

And maybe I'm just so troubled by it because, like many of us, I have no problem quoting movies or television. I can rattle off entire episodes of Seinfeld or the Simpsons from memory and yet I cannot begin to do the same with books, even ones that have so significantly shaped me as a writer and (I would argue) a person. Perhaps it's because television is so passive, or because it's easier to encounter repetition (I can watch a re-run while eating dinner, and a half hour sitcom is much easier to repeat than it is to read a book a dozen times). But still, I am somewhat bothered that my cultural language comes more directly from TV than it does from the books that mean so much to me.

I mention this because there is an exception to the rule. There is one phrase, one image, which I have not been able to shake in the six years since I first encountered it.

 "This is the most miserable in my life." "This is the most miserable in my life." It has become something of a mantra.

It comes from Claudia Rankine's wonderful book-length essay Don't Let me Be Lonely. To give some context: Rankine is referencing a friend who is suffering from Alzheimer's disease, and in the span between diagnosis and being moved to a live-in facility, he writes this on his chalkboard, seen above. And perhaps it is the visual--the extra layer of authenticity, the sharp, shaky letters that seem sick in and of themselves—that keep these words echoing in my mind. Perhaps it is because these words are so mimetic of the condition, the missing article (the most miserable what?), or that the phrase is pure declaration. It is as if language is breaking down, unable to capture the grief: that it is impossible for us to completely reach that headspace until we, too, are the most miserable of our lives.

Most likely, it's the fact that the words are scratched into the surface when chalk would have been so much easier, more easily erased. And because of that extra dedication to the words, we are paradoxically met with permanence in the transitional space of the board, capturing the extent of that misery, the loss of language so directly tied with the loss of self.

Is it dropping my daughter off at daycare for the first time? Getting on a bus to go to my shitty job at 5:30 in the morning? When I'm drinking Mountain Dew and skipping out on my evening run? This is the most miserable of my life.

Or perhaps it's because of the movement, the cognitive leaps of the essay. We get a mother's miscarriage and movie deaths and 1-800-SUICIDE and a picture of breast cancer cells and television commercials and DO NOT RESUSCITATE and Boogie Nights and Gertrude Stein and we are only on page six. We get Murder, She Wrote re-runs that I can only describe as haunting. Sections are interrupted with photos, artwork, the repeating image of a television screen, the ghost of a profile creeping out of the static.
And this essay is television. It is a flipping of channels, a deluxe cable package. It is a series of commercials reminding us that we are alone, depressed. Our medications will save us, but have potentially serious side effects. We are told by the voices that the world is broken, dangerous. We are told that the television is the voice that we can trust.

So what can we do when that voice is speaking to white middle class men ages 18-34? What voice do we trust if we are not a part of a target demographic?

Abner Louima is sodomized while in police custody. A post-9/11 world where anyone of middle-eastern descent is treated like Al Qaeda. "There was a time I could say no one I knew well had died." This is the most miserable of my life.

And so the essay gives voice to a lot of voiceless situations, it is adding subtlety to the black-and-white, right-and-wrong representations "as seen on TV." We can see where the loneliness comes from: the disconnect between TV and reality, between the way the world is represented and the true world. Laugh tracks are added to sitcoms so we never laugh alone, but are we really part of a group when we are separated by glass and light?

Rankine gives me a new understanding of quotation, one I think I can live with: By placing the words in a new context, by juxtaposing quotation with image and personal experience, each element takes on new new meaning, becomes communal. To quote another is to share knowledge, to connect, to never be alone.  

David LeGault's recent work appears (or is forthcoming) in The Seneca Review, The Journal, and Pithead Chapel. He lives and writes in Minneapolis, where he destroys books professionally.

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