Initially this scrap of cheese was in the original chapter 16 (now chap 14), and meant as part of the “exit.” It proved unconvincing, too much tell, not enough show.
Marshall McLuhan explained his most famous dictum, “the medium is the message” like so: the medium is like a burglar who uses a piece of steak—the message—to get past the guard dog in your house. If it requires a real steak for the burglar’s strategy to work, the question of whether culture is good or bad, is—as Lethem tries to argue—essentially the wrong question, because it can only ever be a mixture of both (which is what makes it “impure”).
Of course mileage may vary, just as other kinds of food beside steak can serve as bait for the guard dog. But the better the bait, the more likely the guard dog is to be neutralized; by which read this: the richer the aesthetic qualities of any given cultural artifact, the more our guard dog is put to sleep so our house can be burgled and we can receive the ideological program.
On the other hand, if the dog has just had a full meal, not even the tastiest of steaks will distract it for long. (Just as steaks vary, so do burglars; cat burglars treat your property respectfully, and leave no traces; meth-heads tear it apart and take a shit on your living room floor.)
The smart rat is the rat that never forgets that, if it wants free food, the deadly traps are never far away. It may develop enough skill to ease the luxury cheese out of the trap without springing it; but sooner or later its luck will run out. The smart rat never forgets the risk it’s taking every time it even goes near the trap.
The smart rat is continuously working on finding, or better yet creating, new forms of nourishment independent of the mechanisms designed to destroy it. In this analogy, the rat that prevails must, in the end and to an unknown degree, overcome its own nature, or rather conditioning. It has to turn away from the unearned convenience of kitchen-stocked food provided by humans who, after all, are not its friends. It must cease frequenting zones where traps forever lurk, and start to brave the compost bins and garbage containers outside.
Like the crew of the Nebuchadnezzar, it must learn to live on gruel. Beyond that, there is a whole world of opportunity waiting for the rat who is willing to forego luxury, develop its true resources, and return to the wild. It might miss those chunks of cheddar cheese for a while; but eventually it will adjust to an immeasurably freer, more abundant, and more satisfying lifestyle.
I’m not suggesting we become as rats, or hunter-gatherers living off the grid (though that time may also come). The nourishment we need is not of the nutritional sort but what sustains the soul, and the primary form of sustenance and support for the human soul is relationships.
Celebrity culture synthesizes an artificial form of (parasocial) relationship, not just in the cinematic simulacra it excretes to fertilize its global manure heap—the fetus fields of The Matrix—but also in the fabricated lives of the rich and famous as they are presented to the public (as eminently desirable), and in the pseudo-relationships that exist—holographically—between these Hollywood (or off-Hollywood, like David Lynch) cultural elite and we the proles who adore them.
We are back to the irresistible allure for the alienated of parasocial interaction, which is the essence of the Hollywood PSI-op. As Alyssa Termini writes:
“The coaching of audience attitude” means marketing that creates a loving, sincere, and admiring image for the persona. Coaching typically leads to spectators offering their allegiance to a persona because of his or her genuineness and honesty. The sincerity that the celebrity projects to fans makes spectators feel like they must aid the persona on their journey to success or help maintain an already successful career (p. 12).
What causes a star to shine in the celebrity constellations is the adoration of an anonymous legion. The one is raised up by a multitude that reifies its sovereignty, like the darkness allows the stars to shine, or shit brings flowers to bloom. The cost of this arrangement is that, for every star created, the mass is consolidated in its facelessness, its lack of inner light or momentum. It exists only to worship, imitate, and aspire to rise above, into the celestial spheres. The illegitimate hierarchy ensures not the realization of a dream but the endless perpetuation of a nightmare: factory life.
Yet unlike, say, Mexican peasants, movie stars are generally not known as the happiest people. Whether it’s Johnny Depp tearing up hotel rooms and beating his wife, Barbra Streisand treating the whole world like a menial worker, Christian Bale tearing into a crew member for standing in the wrong spot, Sean Penn punching out photographers, Russell Crowe’s serial assaults, or Bill Cosby drugging and raping women, the checklist for celebrity misbehavior and/or meltdown suggesting something less than a community of satisfied minds could take up a whole other chapter, and an especially prurient (if sickly entertaining) one.
(It would have to include Randy Quaid, Casey Affleck, Ben Affleck, Charlie Sheen, Mel Gibson, Joaquin Phoenix, Lindsay Lohan, Shia LeBeouf, Macaulay Culkin, Drew Barrymore, Val Kilmer, Marlon Brando, Sean Young, and Tom Cruise, just for starters.)
Ditto for outstanding figures in the arts who have self-destructed through an excess of misery, though whether it was intentionally, accidentally, the result of foul-play, or a mix of all three, we may never know.
In no particular order: Heath Ledger, Philip Seymour Hoffman, David Carradine, Jimi Hendrix, Amy Winehouse, Jean Seberg, Michael Hutchence, Natalie Wood, William Holden, Janis Joplin, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Montgomery Clift, James Dean, Michael Jackson, Anna Nicole Smith, Margeaux Hemingway, Kurt Cobain, Richard Burton, John Belushi, Tony Scott, Jim Morrison, Brian Epstein, Lenny Bruce, Billie Holiday, Hank Williams, Bruce Lee, Charles Boyer, Tim Buckley, Nick Drake, Judy Garland, Tony Hancock, Sebastian Horsley, Howard Hughes, Margot Kidder, Alan Ladd, Jackson Pollack, Prince, Brad Renfro, Don Simpson, Mary Ure, Robin Williams, Ernest Hemingway, David Foster Wallace, Hunter S. Thompson, and Tennessee Williams, all crashed and burned with varying degrees of swiftness and intensity. So how exactly did we ever get it into our heads that theirs is, or was, an enviable lifestyle? Chalk it down to the programming.
Perhaps this—the ongoing effort to maintain the myth that our stars are “above us” and not below—is why Lynch’s happiness is so central to the mythmaking of Room to Dream [ref. to Outtake # 8 of 16 Maps]? The community provided by Hollywood is a dark and shady affair, a dysfunctional family, cubed, no more loving or nurturing than a Mafia clan. Is this why The Godfather is Hollywood’s proudest accomplishment: because it manages to turn the mob into the family we never had?
There’s room at the top, they are telling you still: but only if you learn how to smile as you kill. And it is desperately lonely at the top. The nature of stardom is to shine alone, surrounded by darkness. In space, no one can hear you scream.
But humans are already celestial bodies, and what makes a soul shine isn’t infinite space or the adoration of a faceless mass, but the direct, felt connection to other souls. It requires a locking on of awarenesses, by which we see and are seen, and thereby come fully into an experience of existing. It’s love, expressed and received, that allows us to experience our inner light, as a natural, spontaneous reflection or echo of the loving attention of others.
Uniqueness, paradoxically, makes us all equal; and our uniqueness is complementary, it’s meaningful only in relationship to others. Each soul carries part of the picture, and we only come to know ourselves by finding our place within the family constellation of humanity. Only then are we “activated,” lit up like a Christmas tree light according to its placement within the thread.
The aged cheese of the hero myth naturally evolves (or decays) into the processed cheese of the superhero lie, because the notion of a lone individual standing out from the herd via epic accomplishments—through sheer power and force—demands a super-imposition of the stellar being onto, and over, the many. Übermensch means overman. The contrivance of the divine right of kings to rule (and rape) illegitimately transforms a communal system, a network of souls, into a cold and sterile hierarchy, a stone pyramid maintained by slaves.
This superculture obliges each of us to aspire to ascending the pyramid, by our own efforts, to consolidate the growing conviction (which is a necessary defense against the terrible loneliness of such an arrangement) of being a separate, isolate, sovereign identity-self.
When we are pitted against the collective in this way, and defined by our opposition to it, with “the world” for the supposed prize, we sacrifice all possibility of sustenance, completion, or satisfaction. Love goes out the window, and the devil becomes the only company we keep. It is an impossible quest, a thirst that can never be quenched, and the primary quality of this “heroic,” Sisyphus-like existence is quantitative and not qualitative. Our sense of worth is measured in dollars and cents, by how well we compete within the system of idol worship: who gets to be a star, and how big and bright do they shine?
When our experience is of oneness vs. the many, neither ever wins, because the true nature of our existence is not found in isolate identity but in connection. The individual only truly exists in relationship to the collective (and vice versa), and the only way to become the One is by connecting to the All.