Invented lives, marketable evil

I’ve never watched Oprah.  That’s a confession, not a boast.  What can I say?  I’m out of touch.  Anyway, Oprah apparently promoted a book by one James Frey, A Million Pieces, in which he bared his previously degraded, drunken, violent existence:  “I was a bad guy,” he told Oprah.

Actually not.  It turns out that James Frey is just another milquetoast scribbler, trying to invent his own memoirs.  No degradation.  No violence.  Nada.  Still, thanks to Oprah’s teary endorsement, the book took off, and became a best-seller.  Even after Frey’s fraudulence was proven, the publishers defended the memoirs as having literary merit, or human wisdom, or purchasing power — something.  So far as I know, it can still be found on book stores everywhere (but forgive me if I don’t link to it on Amazon).

The fraud is a teapot-sized tempest.  The interesting question, from the moralist’s perspective, is:  why is moral degradation so marketable?

Anne Applebaum raised this question recently in the WaPo.  She compared Frey’s self-invention with Lillian Hellman’s Pentimento, in which the author imagined herself a courageous defender of freedom against Nazi rule.  Applebaum’s point was that self-glorification is a more understandable — and in a perverse way, nobler — reason to lie about one’s life than self-degradation.

“We used to admire people who claimed to fight the Nazis,” she wrote. “Now we admire people who claim to have fought their own drug addiction — and we really, really admire them if they beat up priests, fight with cops, frequently find themselves covered in vomit and spend lots of time in jail while doing so.”

Maybe so.  But it’s equally possible, in my opinion, that degradation has always enjoyed a booming market.

The market appeal of degradation comes from at least two distinct sources in our culture.  One is evangelical revivalism, with its tradition of bearing witness:  “I am a sinner.”  The worse the sins, the more miraculous the salvation.  A semi-secular variation on this tradition can be found in Alcoholics Anonymous and all its spinoffs:  “My name is John Doe, and I’m an alcoholic.”  In both cases individuals are encouraged to abase themselves in public, if only to win the support necessary to attain the good life.

The second source is romanticism.  Sometimes defined as the worship of sickliness, romantics loved to tell on themselves, usually in terms that left a great deal of doubt about their guilt or regret.  At the same time, they handled objective truth in what can only be called the romantic spirit.  Roussau, the proto-romantic, wrote his Confessions with great protestations of truth-telling and soul-baring, but the book is now known to be a tissue of lies, much in the Pentimento and Million Pieces mode.

One truth it contains, and probably the reason the memoir was a scandal and a success, is the tale of Rousseau’s abandonment of his five children to a Paris orphanage (a fate that, at the time, was tantamount to a death sentence).  Rousseau told the tale with a great deal of bluster, and if he wasn’t quite ready to say “I was a bad guy,” one could draw one’s conclusions.  But badness in Rousseau’s ideology, we must remember, came from alienation from nature:  he was a child of his times, a victim of false relationships, and thus, he believed, not to be faulted despite his abominable behavior.

So too with Byron, who lusted after his own sister, and Shelley, who played nasty games with his women and drove one to suicide.  Both led publicly despicable lives.

I can posit a third source of market appeal for degradation:  pornography.  If, in the course of narrating one’s salvation, or one’s liberation from convention, a few seamy details can be thrown in, one has made a successful play for a voracious segment of the audience.

I haven’t read Frey’s book, and I don’t intend to.  Am I worried about it?  Not much.  Do I think it portends a decline in our standards of deceit?  Not at all.  I’m not a big fan of evangelism, precisely because of its exhibitionistic features.  I really have no time for romanticism, the last blooms of which withered in the Sixties, when I was young.  For all the misty-eyed idealism it connotes, romaticism appealed mostly to the heartless and the self-obsessed.  And pornography, of course, is sewage.

All have long been with us.  They might well be regretted, but are not a product of our day and generation.


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