Becoming Uncool in the Pursuit of Truth

Becoming Uncool in the Pursuit of Truth February 21, 2013

This morning, prepping for a class I’m teaching called Writing about Film and Music, I stumbled across a YouTube clip of the legendary Brian Eno, producer of U2’s 1987 The Joshua Tree, talking about his role in the making of that iconic album:

I got the sense that [U2] was capable of making a real marriage between the two things I was talking about, between something that was self-consciously spiritual to the point of being uncool—and uncool was a very important idea then, because people were being very, very cool, and coolness is a certain kind of detachment from yourself, with a certain defensiveness, actually, not exposing something, because it’s too easy to be shot down if you’re exposed…

Later, Eno says that U2 was never a critical darling, because they were perceived as wearing their “hearts on their sleeve.”  Recall the way Bono has used arena stages as a bully pulpit for his various causes: El Salvador, Northern Ireland, Iraq, and gun violence. I confess I’ve always loved this about Bono, though I know it makes lots of people squeamish.

Later in the same clip, The Edge reveals that during the writing of The Joshua Tree, the band was inspired by the work of the New Journalists, especially Norman Mailer’s Executioner’s Song.

In my last post, I suggested that perhaps narrative nonfiction is the most important art form at the moment, as it helps us to engage in and express our spiritual selves. I see an opportunity here to push a little more on this notion that spiritual nonfiction is our most culturally relevant form of writing.

After teaching class, I ran across another reference to coolness and detachment in a recent American Scholar column, in which William Deresiewicz tries to pin down a definition of the “upper middlebrow”: a “post- rather than pre-ironic” aesthetic that is neither middlebrow nor highbrow, and whose “sentimentality [is] hidden by a veil of cool.”

According to Deresiewicz, the upper middlebrow is “edgy, clever, knowing, stylish, and formally inventive”—and is produced by a variety of un-reproachable figures and institutions, including Jonathan Lethem, Wes Anderson, Lost in Translation, the  HBO series Girls, John Stewart, Stephen Colbert, The New Yorker, and This American Life.

It is ultimately designed to flatter its audience, approving our feelings and reinforcing our prejudices. It stays within the bounds of what we already believe, affirms the enlightened opinions we absorb every day in the quality media, the educated bromides we trade on Facebook. It doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know, doesn’t seek to disturb—the definition of a true avant-garde—our fundamental view of ourselves, or society, or the world.

I’m with Deresiewicz. Those asking for a closer inspection of these arguably “cool” artists and works, those who sense that their perceived value is predicated on how fully they affirm our world view and the nearly limitless spectrum of values that secular humanism embraces, are not just seen as uncool, but as oppressors.

I’ll admit it: I spent years chasing after cool before I finally settled down into an un-ironic pursuit of truth. Quite unexpectedly, this search has manifested itself in becoming a nonfiction writer.

Nonfiction seeks to remove that veil, or in some cases, multiple veils, of distance and detachment. And the New Journalism, whose first-person reportorial techniques have been thoroughly absorbed into the other sub-genres of personal essay and memoir, is credited with being the form that cut through the beaureaucratic double-speak of government officials, the public veneer of celebrities, and the biases all reporters harbor.

That’s not to say the New Journalists (Mailer, Didion, Talese, etc.) are not guilty from time to time of detachment. Mailer famously writes about himself in the third person at the beginning of Armies of the Night, and Talese is known for self-effacement in order to get at the real story. And no one would accuse Didion of being uncool—look at those sunglasses!—though note her late-career turn to memoirs meditating on mortality. It’s not that nonfiction is impervious to the arch, post-ironic conventions of the upper-middle brow. It’s got a foothold in my genre, too.

But the personal essay appeals to me right now because it’s where we can attempt to stop lying to ourselves—no more posturing, no more hiding behind a house style—though we may stumble in the attempt.

To be clear: I’m not calling for a boycott of novels or short stories. I still believe that fiction has the power to transform hearts and minds like no other medium. The genius of fiction is in grappling with characters who seem so unlike us, but who are actually holding up a mirror.

But in fiction—as in the upper-middlebrow—we are invited to be the heroes, the ones who stand back from the mess of the story at a safe distance, the ones who have it all figured out. Personal narrative attracts the voyeur, but we are privy to a real person working through the contradictions, struggle, and doubt inherent in human experience. In fiction, this might be done, but at a remove.

So here I am, an Irish Catholic boy, a Notre Dame grad no less, holding up U2 as the antidote to our detachment. But we must find inspiration where we can, and I am inspired by the determination to remain awake at the expense of being cool. I laugh at Colbert and Stewart, and even Girls. But I’m tired of upper-middlebrow detachment.

Like Deresiewicz, I yearn for works of art and culture that will challenge rather than affirm our views about the world, and what we believe to be our essential nature. I want to hear it from the mouths of the lost and the confused. I don’t mind that it sometimes feels like the blind leading the blind. Cool just doesn’t it do it for me anymore.

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