Arbtirary thoughts on nearly everything from a modernist poet, structural mathematician and functional programmer.

Friday, April 24, 2009

laughter and cynicism

Apparently I laugh a lot. I've known this for a while, but a conversation I had today reminded me. My whole family laughs a lot... probably much more than we have any real reason or right to. This is a bit odd since I think we all consider ourselves to be rather cynical on the whole. I realized a while ago that this is perfectly natural. This is because there are two types of cynic, one of which is always laughing.

First: what is a cynic? Cynicism can be characterized by the overwhelming desire to mock everything, fueled largely by the realization that the world is absurd and quite frankly isn't worth our time. Another key feature is the inability to take the world seriously.

There are two approaches here (actually there are a lot more, but we can make a lovely false dichotomy): scorn and ridicule.

The scornful cynic sees this ridiculous world and yearns for something that is not absurd-- for something meaningful, something consequential, something more worthy. Such a thing is nowhere to be found, so the scornful cynic mocks and derides everything-- he is, of course, above these trivialities, so why should he do anything besides mock them? The world is seen as a tiring mess of painfully evident errors that the cynic can't help but notice. Such a world cannot be taken seriously, but it demands to be, so the cynic lashes back in frustration.

The ridiculous cynic on the other hand takes all this absurdity as an infinite jest. The world is a joke being told by some grand comedian for the ridiculous cynic's enjoyment. There is a discord between the demands for seriousness and the absurdity of the world making these demands, which only serves to make the world more ridiculous-- like a chimp in a suit. As such, when the world demands to be taken seriously, the ridiculous cynic simply laughs in its face-- does that really expect to be taken seriously?

The scornful cynic, it seems, takes himself too seriously (why else let something so useless get to you?), while the ridiculous cynic does not take himself seriously enough. (Why else let yourself become as absurd as the rest of the world?)

The two types of cynics actually bring out the extreme in each other. The ridiculous cynic sees the epitome of absurdity in the scornful cynic: He demands (by taking himself so seriously) to be taken seriously, while refusing to repay the world in kind. On the other hand, the ridiculous cynic has let himself become truly absurd, and is certainly doing nothing worth anyone's time, which of course is what brings on a cynic's scorn.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

On kitsch

Milan Kundera brings up kitsch a lot in The Unbearable Lightness of Being. He defines kitsch (incorrectly):
kitsch is the absolute denial of shit, in both the literal and figurative senses of the word; kitsch excludes everything from its purview which is essentially unacceptable in human existence.

This is not quite correct. Kundera is confusing two types of rejection: denial and exclusion. Denial seeks to forget, while exclusion makes the conscious effort to remember-- with disdain. Rather than deny shit, kitsch excludes shit from the beautiful with such vehemence that if something is not shit, it is regarded as beautiful.

"But!" you may be thinking, "kitsch rejects the truly artistic. This surely is not shit!" And you are correct; but I think Kundera offers a response: since shit is at the opposite end of the spectrum of beauty from art, they are, to use Kundera's words, "vertiginously close." And so, in order to exclude shit, kitsch rejects everything that reminds it of shit, including the artistic. The result is than kitsch accepts only the mediocre.

A pretty bathroom is an excellent example of kitsch. In order to exclude shit fully, all nonshit must be beautiful. The only way a pretty bathroom can be made ugly is for it to be covered in shit, so when there is no shit, beauty is guaranteed.
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