Reviewing Lynn Shelton’s Humpday, Adam Cadre arrives, by way of a book wherein Jeffrey Steingarten forces himself to eat everything he dislikes to attain “perfect omnivore” status, at an intersection of the ideas of opinions, tastes, and identity that’s occupied my mind lately:
When Steingarten speaks of becoming a "perfect omnivore," what he really means is a "perfect hedonist": his contempt is palpable for those, including his past self, who deprive themselves of pleasure by disliking something. This is an interesting issue for someone like me who doesn't really like a lot of stuff. It also dovetails with a story I read a couple of days ago, "Reasons to Be Cheerful" by Greg Egan, which Elizabeth brought me four months ago but which I didn't get a chance to look at until just this week for reasons I've discussed. It deals with a guy who has the pleasure receptors in his brain burnt out by a virus and then receives an experimental treatment that amounts to receiving grafts of pleasure pathways from four thousand people. The problem is that initially they're all operating at once and so if even one person in four thousand liked something then he likes it too. In short, he now has "the widest possible taste," exactly the condition to which Steingarten aspires — but he's not happy about it. "Should I still be like this?" he asks his doctors in a panic. "Omnivorous?"
Before long he decides that if he's ever going to develop a sense of identity he somehow needs "to break the symmetry, to make some things a greater source of pleasure than others." Now, I can certainly see a case against this view: developing an even more refined sense of identity might be counterproductive if the self is mostly illusory, and developing a list of likes and dislikes might be counterproductive if true happiness comes from escaping craving and aversion.
Recording an interview with filmmaker Aaron Katz the other week, I mentioned my creeping envy for the kind of cinephiles who’ll enjoy, say, a Michael Bay movie as much as a Yasujirō Ozu movie. I could just front like I do, I suppose, but the fact of remains: I’ll enjoy the Ozu movie. Even beyond cinema, I can’t shake the nagging feeling that anything I don’t particularly like represents a grievous hit to my potential joie de vivre. I suppose this gives some sort of identity as a selective appreciator of, oh, films that have stood the test of time or what have you, but I don’t find it very useful, especially in the grander task of trying to keep my identity small.
Should I therefore thrust myself into an ordeal of Nietzschean self-overcoming by watching all the films to which I feel the least attraction — by megadosing debased genres, say? Should I eat superhuman amounts of whatever I fear most? While I feel no pressing need to go that far, I admit that I’ve felt flashes of vast contempt — though only flashes of it — when people write off a swath of cultural experience as not their “thing.” I desperately wish not to return to middle- and high-school days, when we could only build identities out of abstract likes and dislikes. That didn’t work out so well for me, one reason being that it cut me off from too much of the rest of humanity — but then, I’ve already covered this.
The possibility remains that this likes-and-dislikes business actually bears less on my ability to connect with others than I think. Take Adam Cadre’s site. Most of his writeups on film come to the exact opposite evaluative conclusion I would have — Syndromes and a Century, Tropical Malady, Old Joy, The Limey, In the Mood for Love, Paranoid Park, Silent Light, and Woman in the Dunes all score one point out of ten with him — yet I eagerly read everything he posts. Some film bloggers — let’s face it, many film bloggers — hold opinions that nearly replicate my own, but I don’t read them. Oftentimes I don’t read them because of their bad writing, but really, if I want a lionization of Abbas Kiarostami, I’ll write my own. I stand in the choir’s front row; I don’t need the sermon.
In any intellectual area, give me opinions that aren’t mine, as long as their holders express them well. Scratch that: only if their holders express them well; I’d rather not fill my mind with strawman stuffing. Not only does the very act of coming up against differing opinions make the world an interesting place, it makes me less likely to hold opinions of my own, or at least to hold them with quite as much strength as I would have, which reduces the risk that an identity will dumben me. Which, of course, will eventually make it hard to find conflicting opinions to come up against. Which will make the world a less interesting place for me. Oh well!