Sunday, July 18, 2004

Plato Would Not Allow Jon Carroll in His Republic

So says Jefferson in response to my recent analysis of the ironic stance taken by Jon Carroll in many of his columns.

In a frank and cordial exchange of views on the "Carroll problem," Jefferson told me that he disagrees with my notion of the column as an extended conversation in which faithful readers can spot the irony and know the truth, enjoying the fact that less sophisticated readers will be confused and even misled. He says Carroll is engaged in mixing genres, blurring the distinction between fact and fiction for every reader. He says that readers become accustomed to Carroll's "rules of engagement" and are trained (my word) "to be ready NOT to believe. They know that what Carroll is doing is predicated on entertainment. He has a collection of approaches like a monologist with a limited number of elements in his shtik."

Three of those elements are: 1) columnist as standup comedian; 2) columnist as editorialist/opinion maker; 3) columnist as cultural critic. But because Carroll wants to be free to "change his game" -- his rule is "flexibility," Jefferson says -- the column is "performative, a tour de force." That stance undercuts or dilutes (my words) those moments when Carroll wants to be an editorialist or cultural critic because it is clear to the reader that those stances are subsumed under the entertainer's stance.

I talked to Jefferson about Carroll's "community," those who get him. Jefferson says a better example of a columnist who creates -- or created -- community would be Adair Lara, whose approach was "limpid and quotidian," and whose values are clear and consistent. "Carroll has a fan base. He is primarily a spotlight performer (unlike) Lara who creates community."

Jefferson goes on to say that "Irony is the principal weapon of the comic performer.... When you are unpredictable, you are dangerous. Carroll doesn't care if he is misunderstood, which creates an aura of danger. Only people who like performance like Jon Carroll. He seems to cherish his freedom to write in five voices. At the end of the day he is harder to trust, to 'follow into battle.' Even in his political columns, we feel his art comes first."

Jefferson then confronts a question larger than any I have ever considered. Carroll is an excellent example of a writer who puts style first. Pressman says that "in Christian terms, when style outweighs content, it's a sin." He suggested I look at St. Augustine's Confessions, St. Paul's ruminations on the letter vs. the spirit and Plato's rules for his Republic, from which poets are excluded. Finally, he would prefer that Carroll be other than what he is: "Jon Carroll is in love with his own fabulousness.... Anything other than clarity is a distraction."

The foregoing comments were made from rough notes and may fail in accuracy and certainly do in clarity. I will share them with Jefferson and amend them.

Meanwhile, Carroll responded to my previous "column" thus:

oh Lord, now you've done it. i am meeting myself coming the other way. I
have not grasped the nettle, the nettle has grasped me.
actually, the immediate inspritation for the largess column was the plight
of Ed Ward, who does bits of rock and roll history for Fresh Air. Ed lives
in Berlin and is chronically broke. It is hard for him to get CDs. So he
put a wish list up on Amazon. Fresh Air found out about it and upbraided
him. He almost lost his job. fresh Air pays hom $250 per segment and runs
maybe 12 a year. They're worried about their purity, but they ain't interested in even buying their record reviewer records. Ugh.

This is interesting. When Carroll is dead, cold and famous, this tidbit will be golden. But right now all it does is suggest that the inspiration for the column has nothing to do with the way readers understand the column.

And, doughty reader, may I suggest you read MackDoggy's comment on the "column" before this. I particularly recommend his comment that my own irony failed in that he thinks I have probably been drunk at lunch, very very drunk at lunch.

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