This post contains discussions of suicide, depression, and spoilers for the 130-year old Oscar Wilde short story ‘The Nightingale and the Rose’ which, frankly, you deserve to have spoiled if you’ve not already read it yet.
All of Wilde’s short stories have stuck with me. For better or worse, the one I keep coming back to is the Nightingale and the Rose. It’s a story about a student who is in need of a red rose to prove his love and a nightingale who, in love with the idea of such a romantic gesture, agrees to trade her most beautiful music and her own life for a single red rose. She sings by the light of the moon and presses the thorn to her breast. And as the night wears on and the sharp spike presses through her flesh her song gets wilder; driven on by the rising sun that she will never see she pours every drop of her life into the last burst of music and then – as the rose blooms – falls dead.
There is a twist in the tail. The object of the student’s affection is uninterested in the rose, pricing jewels above it, and the student – disgusted – throws it away and turns instead to practical things like physics. The sacrifice of the nightingale is rendered meaningless because her death has produced something that has a market value lower than jewels.
The work of the artist is meaningless unless it has value for a specific group of people, and their death is unnoticed if there is no market.
Five years ago today Robin Williams was killed by depression, an illness he had struggled with for many years. I think that’s on my mind as I think of the nightingale, breast pressed up against a thorn, pouring out her heart. I’m also thinking about a comedian called Bo Burnham. I’ve just watched his two Netflix specials back-to-back for the second time, and they’re incredible pieces of art. The first, what., is full-throated post-modernism. It’s a very cynical deconstruction of the form, making clear that the whole thing is artifice. The first glimpse of this style I remember seeing was Nish Kumar’s special on the BBC, where he goes on a fantastic rant culminating in the phrase
and immediately hunches over on stage and starts apologising. So far so normal. He’s a comedian known for riffing, and clearly he’s just gone a little too far.
Except he then goes on to explain that because this is a show on the BBC, he’s had to submit a script. He’s known all along he was going to say this. The whole thing is artifice. The rage is artificial. The build-up was scripted. Nothing about this ‘outburst’ was real.
In the first ten minutes of what., Bo knocks over a bottle of water and then triumphantly plays a clip of music mocking the audience, explaining that he meant to knock it over. Why did he mean to? In order to play the clip. He moves on to the next gag but the clip plays again, causing Bo a little embarrassment – before he launches into another snippet, explaining that the ‘accidental’ replaying of the previous clip was also intentional.
Bo is aggressively deconstructing the artifice of both the scripted act of comedy, which is really just a dramatic monologue where applause is encouraged, and the idea of what a joke is.
I’m really drawn to the very sudden, very aggressive mocking that we receive as an audience because it comes directly after we feel empathy and sympathy for a performer having an awkward – and therefore genuine, and therefore human – moment. What’s worse is that it happens twice. From the very outset we’re punished for seeing Bo as anything but a completely made-up person. Even his vulnerabilities have been workshopped to make him more attractive to the 18-25 demographic.
In Repeat Stuff he identifies the way romance songs are written not as an expression of love but as a sequence of Barnum statements designed to generate as much money as possible. This is late capitalism, by the way: where there is a desire for anything there will be, sooner or later, a market for it.1Sometimes we can vertically integrate by generating the desire through elevating the few people successfully using the platform
And then the things we create are only driven by the need to get clicks because, if you don’t look too hard or you’re a biological absolutist, there’s no fucking difference between the addiction to dopamine it feeds and happiness. It’s a prison that we all dutifully maintain.
Now. This is for me the major theme that comes through in what. . It’s excoriating of the form and is still very, very funny. We are all laughing along, ha-ha-ha, as Bo demonstrates that everything he’s doing is completely false and that we are, frankly, idiots for identifying with him at any point. Nothing is real, and what’s worse is that even the false things we pretend are real don’t actually have any meaning. That moment of empathy? Rendered meaningless by the immediate sting of being told it was manufactured. And we’re still buying it. We laugh at our own foolishness for imagining that we might be able to identify with another person like that. Imagine how fucking stupid we are.
15 minutes in Bo starts reading a ‘love poem’ that is pure filth. The meaning of love in this context is Bo’s ability to orgasm, which is admittedly a joke that will pass over the heads of most men I know, but is a deconstruction of what a ‘love poem’ is. Again: words only have meaning that we give them but also meaning itself is dead. Comedy! The juxtaposition of things we think we understand with a different meaning. Bo’s performance is exquisite, pausing at one point to lick a finger to turn the page. And then he collapses the artifice entirely, shows us the blank pages of the book, and says “I know it[the poem]. Why am I lying to you?” before putting the book on his head. He continues reading the poem from memory, but pauses to leaf over another page. He is carrying out the actions of reading a poem while not actually reading a poem.
Later on he wishes death on his father. Is it real? Does it have weight or meaning? Who knows. The only thing to do is laugh, because holy shit if it was true and we were all watching a tall skinny kid whose mental health was degrading through performative cynicism and who really did have deep seated issues with his dad and we were laughing, we’d be bad people.2If the word ‘bad’ had any meaning, which it doesn’t. We’ve all agreed that meaning is dead, so words are just sounds that relate to meanings that are fundamentally meaningless. Alright? So let’s forget about words like ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and ‘happy’.
Perhaps not by chance, Bo’s second special, make happy, ends with those words. It’s a song that aims to mock Kanye West’s rant during his Yeezus tour and seems to morph into absolute sincerity as he sings – not in his real voice, but in an autotuned facsimile –
Look at them, they’re just staring at me
Like come and watch the skinny kid
With a steadily declining mental health
And laugh as he attempts to give you what he cannot give himself
One of the only ways to win in a postmodern culture is not to play along.
I worry that the weeknotes I write are playing along: they’re carefully curated vulnerabilities that are “brave” where once they were completely unacceptable. They not a perfect reflection of who I am and, frankly, sometimes they’re not true. The theme of the week needs a story that actually happened a year ago. For the purposes of the narrative I need to have been recently referred to a doctor to find out if I’m on the autistic spectrum. For there to be a marketable value to the story I can’t have been stuck in limbo for over a year while the overstretched NHS does the unthinkable and tries to prioritise whose mental health is most important to improve right now. But I have been.
Even my heartbreaks are repackaged as performative snippets and skits. I talked about the strange coincidence that shortly after I broke up with an ex I saw her name literally everywhere, because a company with her name had taken out advertising on London buses. That’s a funny story and it has enough of a tinge of sadness to help you identify with me.
I didn’t talk about the fact that I tried to stay friends with her and then this year she said simply that she didn’t want me in her life any more. There’s no way of packaging up in a fun way the absolute termination of a friendship that lasted five years. It’s also why I didn’t really talk about the person who broke up with me this year, because I’m still shattered from it. I’m so broken that I’m even now only just coming to terms with how broken I am about it.
This trivialisation of psychic trauma comes from the same place. Nothing has meaning. Even your pain has no meaning unless it’s marketable, and the market’s only requirement is that it makes people feel good. And so if you’re privileged you can write about your trauma or go on stage and get clicks and likes and a dopamine rush, and if you’re not privileged then it can be used as poverty porn and be broadcast to millions for 42 minutes plus advertising breaks.
I have been writing – performing public writing as a form – for probably ten years now. I have gone through breakups and fuckups and I wrote about how much I love my mother in a light and funny way that got me a load of likes. I’ve written literally millions of words at this point. All of them are thrown out into the world in the hope that someone else will identify with them; that someone else will know that they’re seen even as I desperately seek someone who sees me.3A futile search because, as you’ll notice, I’ve not been myself at all Is it a bad thing to find meaning in something that’s constructed? Is it worse if the artist has told you it’s true? Does the meaning go away? Why?
– Tell me one last thing. Is this real? Or has this been happening inside my head?
– Of course it is happening inside your head. Why on earth should that mean it is not real?JK Rowling, on writing
I have recently changed my writing style, I suspect for the same reason that Bo filtered his voice through a computer when he exposed how he truly felt. The new style is poetic and metaphorical4at least, I like to think it is and hints at things, and allows me to better try to find meaning instead of the artificial way I’ve been selecting stories that fit a narrative while still putting a barrier between me and – shudder – authentic self-expression.
This is why I love make happy, Bo’s second special, and Nanette, by Hannah Gadsby. In both there is a recognition that there must be something after postmodernism. There must be a place where we do have meaning, where the word ‘happy’ actually means something. We’ve all agreed that ‘happy’ has no real meaning. Fine. But we can make up our own meaning. If we push all the way past “life has no meaning” then we get to “okay, so why are you alive?”.
So I think the second way to survive postmodernism is to reject “meaning is dead” and instead explore “what is meaningful to me?”, safe in the knowledge that meaning is dead. Nobody can tell you that your meaning is not right, because nothing has any meaning at all.5okay, this is too many uses of the word ‘meaning’
With the new style I’m purposefully holding things back. I encourage you to read anything I write and be cynical of whether it’s real or not. But I also want you to take any meaning you find and believe in it. My ex would say this phrase a lot, so it’s painful to repeat it, but it’s important: whatever gets you to the island. If the boat that got you to this island of meaning in a vast sea of nothing was leaky or even imaginary, it doesn’t matter because you’re here now. The medium is not important.
Meaning is not dead. It’s waiting for you to discover it.