This blog has served me in interesting ways. For communicating to an unknown, probably really small audience about various shit I’m thinking/doing, which sort of turns into pathetic self-promotion, e.g. after reading a book, I report on it like an elementary school kid trying to win his teacher’s favor, like, “see, I really read the book, aren’t I the best??? Can I get that free Pizza Hut personal pan pizza now???” I quote it, wax “poetic” about it, use it as inspiration for my own asshat-tastic thinking. What I’m also likely doing is purging the book from my mind to make way for the next feeding; a post about it wraps things up nicely, and I can send it away to collect dust. Or, ideally, pass it off to someone I know.
Welcome to another self-serving post, wherein I speak briefly about a book I’ve just read out of some weird duty I feel to do so. I guess it’s a good thing, pausing to reflect on each thing I consume, especially in a winter when I’ve planned for myself quite the adventure. Two nights in, two books down, in the middle of two others. I read Baldwin in a single sitting, then Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up (a Christmas gift from my sister) in a single sitting. Quite different reads, especially if I use a lens of race.
Let’s do it for a beat: viewed with race in mind, Steve Martin’s autobiography (or biography, as he claims, since it’s an old self, so distant and alien to his reflective self that it really was someone else) is a beacon of white privilege, an unintentional worshipper of white supremacy, if we substitute the American Dream for white supremacy, which why not? Let’s be reckless. White people will be fine. They’ll live. Lavishly.
Martin’s narrative is an act of gratitude to all the doors that were open to him because he was a straight white male; he never chooses to see that at all. Instead, he looks back at his childhood without regard for any larger social context. And so we hear about his relatively dull, but fairly unloving household, marked by loose family ties and a tense one with his father (who then becomes the dragon he slays in his hero’s journey, although it ends in deep love and forgiveness a la Luke and Vader), as well as his exciting life away from home (Disneyland, friends, eventually sex and weed but also serious study, endless craft). He writes himself right into the annals of American mythology. American Dream? Check. He worked hard and achieved his dreams. I can’t deny him the work. He toiled in obscurity, as they say, for well over 10 years, working in the “darkest” environments (by the never threatened life standards of Whiteness) and being molded by what for him qualified as Shadows. After years of putting in his time, the Dream said, “okay, Steve, come on in. You’ve filled your quota.”
Don’t get me wrong. It’s impressive and inspiring how things worked out so well for him in the end, but it’s unnerving how easy it is to eat this narrative up. Like if I decided to return to my short-lived ambition of becoming a stand-up (which wait, did I need to be born standing up? that’s another silly American myth, that success is the result of some natural talent, some birthright…yikes, isn’t that how white people enacted genocide?), all I’d have to do is work really hard for 10 years and then things would be okay. Not sure what “okay” even needs to mean here, but let’s not swallow this medicine too quickly. Hard work may be necessary to “make it,” but it’s no guarantee. But we know this, don’t we?
Self-made man? Check that box too. Martin ultimately reflects on how he “came from nothing.” He started from the bottom, and now he’s here. Really? So simple? You were nothing, worked really hard, made yourself something? He acknowledges all the help he got along the way, thanking everyone with due humility and deference, but he never highlights the implicit aid he received by virtue of being a straight white male in America. He never thinks to recognize the role of all the underlying forces that made it possible for his hard work to really matter, for it to have value, for it to effectively become currency. Why doesn’t he contextualize? He studied philosophy, fell in love with the 70s ideology of love (which we must contextualize as a definitively white reality)…in other words, he’s no fool. Or maybe, he’s not dumb, but he is a fool. I’m a fool too. That is to say, I’m blind to what I can’t see. What I don’t have to see.
Martin is under no obligation to look at his life through a lens of race, and he doesn’t. He looks at it primarily through the lens of cautious nostalgia, and so he experiences mostly fondness and compassion, with a bit of embarrassment in the mix. Loads of humility too, but that’s also a by-product of white privilege. It’s easy to look back with gratitude when the world was never really against you, when there was nothing silently getting in the way of your communion with it and in it.
Despite a lack of natural ability, I did have the one element necessary to all early creativity: naivete, that fabulous quality that keeps you from knowing just how unsuited you are for what you are about to do.
This is a wonderful concept, especially if you take it without any social context. But Martin had to wonder: how did I get to experience this unearned naivete, the ingredient that generated the resilience necessary to fail and to love failure and to metabolize it as fuel for growth? Naivete, “that fabulous quality,” is part of White experience. The world is scary insofar as it’s scary in the hero’s journey. You know that if you quest into the unknown, you’ll return with what you’re promised: a great boon. Self-discovery. Victory. A convenient myth. But most people – because of who they are and what that means where they are – don’t experience the world with such lovely fantasy. They don’t grow up safely, right by Disneyland, believing that the world is more than it is.
There’s a lot I can identify with in this book: I grew up with the same naivete; I feel the same urge to perform; I consider myself to be as shy and reserved as Martin does in private; I want to push the boundaries of whatever art I attempt, or rather, to reveal that there were never any boundaries to begin with. But I can’t do so with the Martin’s Romantic vigor.
I have learned there is no harm in charging oneself up with delusions between moments of valid inspiration.
Martin bought into his own personal mythology, which any aspiring artist and human being likely has to do to keep going, but what he didn’t realize was always embedded in that personal mythology was a duplicitous cultural mythology, one that doesn’t extend universally, even though we want to believe that it does. If it does, then we don’t have to question our own experience with any serious doubt about what really helped us make it.
Soon I felt that a career in the irrational world of creativity not only made sense but had moral purpose.
Moral purpose? What of it?
Comedy is a distortion of what is happening, and there will always be something happening.
And what do we notice is happening? How is what we see framed by what we learn is even possible to see? Martin grew up, like I did, with the privilege to not see so much of what’s really happening, and so his comedy was a distortion of fantastical, absurd world. After all, being White, he was born in a fantastical, absurd world. America is Disneyland for White people. Why would we ever leave the park or wonder if there’s anything outside it? If there are people waiting their turn to get in, or people forbidden from entering? When you’re in the park, that’s all there is.
So go ahead and wait for the next ride. Every dream that you (white man) wish will come true.
[Johnny Carson] gave each guest – like the ideal America would – the benefit of the doubt: You’re nuts, but you’re welcome here.