That must have seemed like a commercially insane decision at the time. But a more easily accessible Springsteen, removed from his soul roots, his childhood obsessions and the oft-repeated idiom of cars and highways, would have been diluted. Instead, he processed new issues in the language of his old tradition, and now you’ve got young adults filling stadiums, knowing every word to songs written 20 years before they were born, about places they’ll never see.
It makes you appreciate the tremendous power of particularity. If your identity is formed by hard boundaries, if you come from a specific place, if you embody a distinct musical tradition, if your concerns are expressed through a specific paracosm, you are going to have more depth and definition than you are if you grew up in the far-flung networks of pluralism and eclecticism, surfing from one spot to the next, sampling one style then the next, your identity formed by soft boundaries, or none at all.
(Maybe this is why younger rock bands can’t fill stadiums year after year, while the more geographically defined older bands like U2, Springsteen and the Beach Boys can.)
The whole experience makes me want to pull aside politicians and business leaders and maybe everyone else and offer some pious advice: Don’t try to be everyman. Don’t pretend you’re a member of every community you visit. Don’t try to be citizens of some artificial globalized community. Go deeper into your own tradition. Call more upon the geography of your own past. Be distinct and credible. People will come.
I think he’s onto something. This makes me think about how, when I moved to Washington DC in the early 1990s, I would be at a bar or a party, and inevitably a group of Southerners would come together and, discovering we had geography in common, start telling stories about where we were from. So often it happened that non-Southerners would fall silent and listen to these stories, all of which were true (or at least plausible), and say things like, “That really happened? Really?” Yeah, really.
That experience in Washington — which was repeated many times there — was the first time I learned directly how different the South was from other American regions. Over the years, as I migrated around, I learned to appreciate, though never quite share, the sense of distinctness New Yorkers and Texans (though not necessarily Dallasites, for interesting reasons) have about their own places, which really stand out. People from New York City and people from Texas are proud of their places; I like that. A little chauvinism for the cause of particularity can be a good thing, and besides, it ain’t braggin’ if it’s true.
A California friend used to tell me, “Your best writing is about the South.” She was talking about my private letters, because back then I didn’t have a blog, and never wrote about the South for publication. What she was getting at, I think, was that my writing was always more vivid when I told stories about where I’m from. It could be in part because Southerners are better storytellers, but I think it’s more complicated than that. For one, I think Southerners have better stories to tell, because this is a stranger place compared to the rest of America. For another, I think Southerners — though not all Southerners, not by a long stretch — are better at recognizing good stories. Flannery O’Connor said:
Whenever I’m asked why Southern writers particularly have a penchant for writing about freaks, I say it is because we are still able to recognize one. To be able to recognize a freak, you have to have some conception of the whole man, and in the South the general conception of man is still, in the main, theological. That is a large statement, and it is dangerous to make it, for almost anything you say about Southern belief can be denied in the next breath with equal propriety. But approaching the subject from the standpoint of the writer, I think it is safe to say that while the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted. The Southerner, who isn’t convinced of it, is very much afraid that he may have been formed in the image and likeness of God. Ghosts can be very fierce and instructive. They cast strange shadows, particularly in our literature. In any case, it is when the freak can be sensed as a figure for our essential displacement that he attains some depth in literature.
She said that 52 years ago, and though it’s much less true of the suburbanized South today, it is still, I think, far more true than for the rest of the country. Take the example of our local drag queen. Here, he’s seen as a freak, in the Flannery O’Connor sense. And he is appreciated as a freak. That rankles many people from elsewhere, who are so afraid to call anything freakish and who would never, ever violate the taboo of thinking that there was anything at all strange about the vibrant diversity of a man living in a small town in the South who loves to go around in dresses and host fundraisers for homeopathic veterinary treatment for abandoned animals (true story!).
Here’s the thing: there is nothing all that strange about being seen as a freak by your neighbors, and being accepted by them all the same. I see it all the time here. That makes sense to me, because having been raised in this culture, I don’t expect the way people behave to be logical and consistent. It is possible to be very conservative in one’s religion and one’s cultural politics, and have no particular problem with the drag queen, or the believer in a weirdo religion, or the drunk, or the guy who puts his own tombstone by his front door and pees on it every night (my uncle did this, as you can see), or the this or the that.
They may be freaks, but they’re our freaks. And come to think of it, Bubba, we’re all a little freaky in our own way. Some of the funniest freaks I know are people who think that the way they are is the norm in the world, and who have no idea how particular they are. And that’s the human condition.
Anyway, I think that a great obstacle to art is this mindless egalitarianism that says we cannot notice freakery, or if we do, it always and everywhere must be approved of, without nuance, because to do otherwise is to Be Judgmental. I’m not talking about “you have to disapprove of the Other to make art.” I’m talking about how you need to have some idea of what a human being is in order to find a place to stand to judge deviations from the ideal. What’s more, as Auden put it, “You shall love your crooked neighbor/With your crooked heart.” That is, you have to learn how to see this freakish world with the eyes of love, while at the same time trying to see it clearly as a distortion of the ideal. This is very hard to do. The theologian David Bentley Hart, in talking about reconciling suffering and evil with the existence of an all-good and all-powerful God, said the following:
To see the world as it should be seen, and so to see the true glory of God reflected in it, requires the cultivation of charity, of an eye rendered limpid by love.
In other words, to see the world clearly one must first love it, and affirm that it is good. And then the hard work begins. Hart writes:
The Christian should see two realities at once, one world (as it were) within another: one the world as we all know it, in all its beauty and terror, grandeur and dreariness, delight and anguish; and the other the world in its first and ultimate truth, not simply “nature” but “creation,” an endless sea of glory, radiant with the beauty of God in every part, innocent of all violence. To see in this way is to rejoice and mourn at once, to regard the world as a mirror of infinite beauty, but as glimpsed through the veil of death; it is to see creation in chains, but beautifully as in the beginning of days.
Are Southerners better at this than others? I really couldn’t say, and if they are, it’s not because of a consciously theological vision, but because there’s something about living here that helps you develop that sense of keeping two sets of books. I’m not at all sure that I understand this, but I recognize it.
As you may remember, I don’t read much fiction, but I did read Jonathan Franzen’s celebrated novel “Freedom” last year. I thought it was exceptionally well written, and I thought he did a good job of describing and defining certain suburban American character types. The book, however, was a disappointment, because it sputtered to an inconclusive ending. Franzen was so good at determining what was wrong with these characters, but he offered no way out for them. I thought at the end of the book that this is because Franzen doesn’t believe in God.
Don’t misunderstand — by no means did I expect the characters to undergo some sort of religious conversion. Besides, I have no idea what Franzen’s religious beliefs are. It’s rather that on evidence of this novel, it seems to me that Franzen suffers from the same deep malaise as his characters: having all this freedom to be whatever you want to be, but no idea what one should be, or any conceptual framework for discerning it.
I wonder if this is one reason why Southerners are so good at storytelling: because the storyteller and her audience have a particular sense of place and the expectations this place and its culture put onto one. Even if one rebels against it — as I have to some extent; it’s part of what my forthcoming memoir about my sister is about — at least there is something entrenched to rebel against. It’s like why Hollywood movies that show rebellion against religion often illustrate it in the context of rebelling against the Roman Catholic Church: there is a there there. Who rebels against Unitarianism, or liberal Protestantism? What does it mean to be a rebel against a liberal bourgeois order that blesses in advance most anything you choose to do with your life?
I don’t mean to give the impression that the South is cut off from the rest of America in this way. It’s hard for me to think that there’s that much difference between a kid acculturated in suburban Atlanta, and one acculturated in suburban Minneapolis. The old, weird America is passing away, and places like the one I’m from, and moved back to, are small islands in an ever-widening stream. A California-born friend visiting from Washington told me last month, “You know you live in an amazing place. It’s one of the last real places left in America.”
I offer this only as rambling thoughts about place and particularity, hoping to open a conversation, not settle one. What do you think?