Write something on Gladwell I was asked; Side show Bob? No, Gladwell.
I saw him once [side show Bob], on stage in the West end, apologising to the audience that if they had come to see The Lion King , they were out of luck. Having got the requisite laugh, he went on for the next hour and half to weave a story of a plane crash, culture, power, technology and weather, the frailty of not asking. And he did so with a quixotic power lending the apparently dull and opaque a sheen that would not have escaped the ironic lens of a Cartier Bresson. In days gone by, it would have kept him from execution, simultaneously giving the dryness of much academia a run for its money.
Between the idea and the reality, between the motion and act, falls the shadow.
Gladwell manages to achieve with panache, something that so many others around him routinely fail to. A sense of viewing the world through a different lens, the ability to take apparently disparate aspects of modern life that we have seen and become habituated to, and to delicately expose a hidden seam of narrative joining the threads. In that sense he has been something of a trailblazer for many authors in this burgeoning field of pop-cultural enquiry. And as with any spectator sport there are some competing narratives here that are more compelling than others.
Gladwell’s potential strengths lie in his magpie approach to numerous academic fields, half inching an idea here, formulating a question there that more often than not resonates with readers. And not just with the usual eggheads either. However, for such explanatory [Gladwellian] models of the world around us to work, they also need to chime with some sense of personal experience; from the pragmatic, ‘you can’t always get what you want’ [thanks rubber lips]; to the eternally optimistic/deluded [delete as necessary] ‘American Dream’; and from a recent ‘overheard in London Time Out’, ‘look at that bloke with a hat, what a cunt’ [ sartorial relationships, male bonding, take your pick].
The boldness of certain explanatory models/stories might indeed feel ennobling. Think the grand narratives of the 20th Century, Communism, Psychoanalysis to name just two. On the one hand we have the idea of the perfectability of human society/spirit, on the other gulags and blaming your bed wetting on deine Mutter. Such narratives may change our thinking about what, and how we view (in) our world. They might alter our relationships to each other [think about how economics can restructure social relationships].
But what if the explanatory model, however right it may seem, is just too much to bear? You may be a cunt for wearing a hat, but who wants to hear that? [And perhaps it’s also something to do with the type of hat and the type of head?]. Or that life didn’t turn out the way it should [who’s to say it should turn out like the Literature we read anyway?]. Or that in its myriad disappointments life slowly erodes the sense of personal agency we may once have felt [read into that of course the wildly differing levels of personal agency that different people assume they have access to in the first place]. Or even what part of the dance that heralded the end of that relationship did we contribute to? What we all do in the end, sad though it may be, is to rewrite history, in our own tragic, Irving-esque manner. We smooth over the blemishes, photo shop our choices so as to appear to others, but most importantly to ourselves as less selfish, venal, narcissistic. So what does this all prove? Well, apart from anything else, that one doesn’t even need a hat to be called names.
History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation [Quoting Patrick Lagrange].
The Sense of an Ending: Julian Barnes
How do I define history? It’s just one fucking thing after another.
The History Boys: Alan Bennett
Take your pick people. Either shit happens and we put it down to nothing, or there is indeed some explanation to it, though the latter needs to fit with our view of the world and as mentioned previously, with what we can bear. As to how satisfying this might prove, well that seems to be a function of at least time itself. And as much as we would like to believe, that on being provided with an explanation for something that has happened in their life, the person in question will suddenly have a lightbulb moment and transformation will follow – a shift in the story to live life by so to speak – this rarely seems to happen outside of the movies. There may indeed come a moment when we are bored with the stories that we tell ourselves about our lives; at which time the presence or import of an alternative tale may actually be welcome, if not exactly received with open arms. And in case you were thinking it, no, it bears no necessary relation to the truth.
There are only two things that can destroy a healthy man: love trouble, ambition, and financial catastrophe. And that’s already three things, and there are a lot more.
Peter Altenberg: Fechsung
Rob the average man of his life-illusion, and you rob him of his happiness at the same stroke.
Henrik Ibsen: The Wild Duck
So choose a life story [they say there’s only a limited amount of stories available] and live it, in the knowledge that there may be better; but be aware that our character gets the better of us, because to accept something else would necessitate change and perhaps ask too much. At the same time we can wonder why it didn’t all quite work out. In our more reflective moments we contemplate, like Brando, that being a contender may once have been an option. And as the years pass by, we’ll all have to answer the question, was that particular story worth it?
Or get a plus size model, less thinking , more doing and run off into the sunset with her.